How sugary drinks could raise heart disease risk
Individuals who have a preference for sugary drinks may be more at risk of cardiovascular disease, a new study suggests. The research associates sweetened beverage consumption with abnormal cholesterol markers, which may spell trouble for heart health in the long run.
As many as 17.9 million people die each year because of cardiovascular disease — an umbrella term that refers to different conditions affecting the heart and vascular system.
Among the main risk factors for cardiovascular disease are diet, high blood pressure (hypertension), as well as elevated levels of blood sugar and cholesterol.
An abnormal level of lipids in the blood — called dyslipidemia — is one of the metabolic disorders that doctors try to avert as part of cardiovascular disease prevention.
But to do so, specialists must also understand the factors that may contribute to dyslipidemia.
New research — led by investigators from the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, MA — now shows that older adults may be more prone to dyslipidemia if they drink sugary beverages on a daily basis.
They indicate that older adults who have a keen preference for sweetened drinks have heightened levels of triglycerides and lowered high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
This, they say, could later contribute to dyslipidemia that may, in turn, affect cardiovascular health in the long run.
“Our findings show that what we put in our glass may contribute to greater risk of cardiovascular disease via worsening of lipid levels.”
“Managing blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels is an important goal and a promising strategy for preventing heart attack and stroke,” she continued.
Sugary drinks tied to low ‘good’ cholesterol
In their study, the investigators analyzed data from two cohorts that researchers had enrolled at different stages of the Framingham Offspring Study.
The cohorts were 3,146 participants joining between 1991–2014, and 3,584 participants joining between 2002–2011.
To start with, the team analyzed data from the first cohort, which included individuals in their 50s, 60s, and 70s.
The researchers had access to measures of the participants’ HDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels from physical examinations at baseline, as well as once every 4 years over an average follow-up period of about 12 years.
The team was also able to estimate the participants’ intake of different types of beverages from information gathered via specialized surveys.
By looking at all the data, the researchers found that participants who drank one more sweetened beverages per day at the latest follow-up exam had a 98% higher incidence of low HDL cholesterol at the subsequent follow-up exam than people who rarely drank sugary beverages.
They also had a 53% higher incidence of high triglycerides levels at that same landmark.
Similar findings emerged when the team looked at long-term sweetened beverage consumption patterns — over approximately 12 years.
The investigators explain that the findings are bad news: HDL cholesterol is also known as “good” cholesterol because its main task is to remove low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol from the bloodstream before it can clog up the arteries, which can increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular problems.
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At the same time, high triglyceride levels are also a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Taken together, high triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol can amount to dyslipidemia that, in the long run, can cause damage to the heart and vascular system.
“The results suggest that high intake of drinks with added sugar, such as soda, lemonade or fruit punch, may influence risk for dyslipidemia as we age.”
“One dietary strategy to help maintain healthier blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels may be to avoid drinks with added sugars.”
‘Better off quenching thirst with water’
The findings remained consistent when the researchers went on to look at data from the second cohort, comprising a slightly younger population of people in their 40s.
Among these participants, too, those who had a higher sugary drink intake had lower HDL cholesterol levels and higher triglyceride levels at follow-up exams — every 4 years — than peers who rarely drank sweetened beverages.
Still, the researchers note that the metabolic changes were not quite as pronounced in this younger cohort as they were in the older one, making it harder to tell whether they had increased their risk for dyslipidemia.
“With these younger participants, we did see unfavorable changes, but they were likely too young during the short follow-up period to know if they would eventually develop dyslipidemia.”
Still, she adds that the current findings “contribute to the mounting evidence that sugary drinks should be avoided to help maintain long-term health.”
While the team found no conclusive link between 100% fruit juice or diet drinks consumption and dyslipidemia risk, it, nevertheless, advises people not to replace plain water with other beverages.
“We are better off quenching our thirst with water,” McKeown emphasizes. “The emerging research on long-term consumption of diet soda on health is inconclusive, so it is prudent to say diet drinks should only be an occasional indulgence,” she goes on to say.
“As for 100% fruit juice,” she continues, “best to limit consumption and consume whole fruits when possible, as recommended by the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
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