Dementia: The popular drink linked to a threefold greater risk of Alzheimer’s – study

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Dementia is a merciless set of symptoms associated with progressive brain decline. Alzheimer’s disease – the common type of dementia – impairs memory, thinking and behaviour. Age is the predominant risk factor, which, in a world where people are living longer than ever before, will become ever more salient. Fortunately, research continues to point to modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer’s.

The link between diet and dementia is complex because casual connections are hard to establish.

Nonetheless, a study published in journal Stroke identified a concerning link between dementia risk and artificially-sweetened beverages.

Artificially-sweetened beverages include any type of low-calorie or diet beverage that contains artificial sweeteners.

Researchers analysed the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort, which began in 1971 and has followed a group of people throughout their lives with examinations every four years.

The consumption of sugar has previously been linked with cardiovascular health, which is also linked with both stroke and dementia.

The researchers were interested in understanding how the consumption of sugary drinks could be affecting the risk of stroke or dementia, and whether this risk differed if people were consuming artificially-sweetened drinks.

Participants in the study were asked to complete a questionnaire regarding their food and drink intake, including how frequently they consumed one glass, bottle or can of each beverage, on average, over the course of a year.

The participants completed this questionnaire in three examinations that took place between 1991 and 1995, 1995 and 1998, and 1998 and 2001.

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The questionnaire included three types of sugar-sweetened soft drink, four types of fruit juice, one type of non-carbonated sugar-sweetened fruit drink and three types of artificially-sweetened soft drink.

Using this information, the researchers calculated the total intake of sugary beverages (including both sugary soft drinks, and fruit juices and drinks) that each person drank per day, as well as the number of sugary soft drinks and artificially-sweetened soft drinks they consumed.

There were 2,888 people with data that the researchers could analyse for stroke, and 1,484 people who could be analysed for dementia.

The researchers looked at the 10 years following the 1998 to 2001 visit to see how many people went on to experience a stroke or develop dementia.

During this period, 97 participants had a stroke, and 81 people developed dementia. The researchers found that people who drank at least one artificially-sweetened drink a day were three times as likely to have an ischaemic stroke and 2.9 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

However, the significant effect on Alzheimer’s risk was not observed when the researchers adjusted for other factors including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cholesterol, waist to hip ratio and whether people have the ApoE4 risk gene.

At the time of publication, Doctor Rosa Sancho, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “As people are becoming more aware of the consequences of a high-sugar diet, many are turning to artificially-sweetened diet fizzy drinks as an alternative to those with lots of sugar.

This interesting new study has pointed to higher rates of dementia in people who drink more artificially-sweetened drinks, but it doesn’t show that these drinks are the cause of this altered risk. When the researchers accounted for other risk factors for Alzheimer’s, such as risk genes, diabetes, heart disease, cholesterol levels and weight, this significant association was lost suggesting that these drinks are not the whole story.”

The link is not altogether surprising. What is good for the heart is often good for the brain and higher intake of artificially sweetened beverages has been linked to an increased risk of having a heart attack, stroke, or other serious cardiovascular problems.

You may therefore be able to reduce your risk of developing dementia – as well as other serious problems, such as strokes and heart attacks – by taking steps to improve your cardiovascular health.

These include:

  • Stopping smoking
  • Keeping alcohol to a minimum
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet, including at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables every day
  • Exercising for at least 150 minutes every week by doing moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as cycling or fast walking), or as much as you’re able to
  • Making sure your blood pressure is checked and controlled through regular health tests
  • If you have diabetes, make sure you keep to the diet and take your medicine.

The latest research suggests that other factors are also important, although this does not mean these factors are directly responsible for causing dementia.

These include:

  • Hearing loss
  • Untreated depression (although this can also be a symptom of dementia)
  • Loneliness or social isolation
  • A sedentary lifestyle.

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