Soft drinks have been linked to a number of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. And now a new study suggests that drinking even a single sugary soda a day can cause cells in your body to age prematurely.
It all has to do with telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of our chromosomes. Previous research has shown that telomeres tend to shorten as we grow older, and this new study suggests that drinking soda hastens the process.
"Having shortened telomeres is a strong predictor of developing chronic diseases earlier in life," study co-author Dr. Elissa Epel, director of the University of California, San Francisco's Aging, Metabolism, and Emotion Center, told The Huffington Post in a telephone interview. "So in addition to obesity, there’s another path through which soda can be impacting our health."
In fact, the soda's apparent effect on telomere length seems roughly comparable to the effect caused by smoking, Dr. Cindy Leung, a researcher at the university and the study's lead author, said in a written statement. Yikes.
For the study, the researchers measured telomere length in DNA taken from 5,309 healthy men and women between the ages of 20 and 65 and then looked at how much sugar-sweetened soda each person reported drinking on a regular basis. The data were from the years 1999 through 2002.
The researchers found that the telomeres of people who reported having an 8-ounce daily serving of soda showed that the people's biological age was older by 1.9 years, TIME magazine reported. Drinking a daily 20-ounce serving was linked to 4.6 more years of biological aging.
“This is the first demonstration that soda is associated with telomere shortness,” Epel said in the written statement. “This finding held regardless of age, race, income and education level.”
Of course, the fact that soda consumption and short telomeres were linked doesn't actually prove that drinking soda is causing the telomeres to shorten. But "our results are highly suggestive that drinking soda would make your cells age faster," Leung told The Huffington Post in an email. "Studies like ours provide initial discoveries that can be explored further in experimental studies, which help to determine the nature of this important relationship."
The study was published online in the American Journal of Public Health on Oct. 16.