April 23 (UPI) -- New research suggests artificially sweetened drinks like diet soda may be putting the brains of imbibers at increased risk of dementia and stroke. The new study was published last week in the journal Stroke.
Scientists looked at the overlap of health conditions and artificially sweetened beverage consumption among several thousand adults. Researchers weren't able to show a cause-and-effect relationship between drinking diet soda and the two brain maladies, but did find a troubling link between the variables.
Researchers relied on data from the Framingham Heart Study, a health survey conducted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and Boston University. Patients who suffered strokes and dementia were more likely to report a steady habit of diet soda drinking.
The team of health researchers analyzed instances of stroke among 2,888 adults older than 45, and tallied rates of dementia among 1,484 adults older than 60.
"Dementia is rare in people under the age of 60 and so we focused only on those aged over 60 years for dementia," lead researcher Matthew Pase, a neurologist and senior research fellow at Boston University School of Medicine, said in a statement. "Similarly, stroke is rare in people aged under 45 and so we focused on people older than age 45 for stroke."
Framingham, Mass., residents who drank one diet soda per day were three times more likely to suffer a ischemic stroke, which occurs when thickened artery walls limit blood flow to the brain. Adults who drank one diet soft drink per day were also three times more likely to be diagnosed with dementia.
Researchers found no correlation between the two medical conditions and consumption of other sugary beverages, such as juice and soda sweetened with real sugar.
"It was not surprising to see that diet soda intake was associated with stroke and dementia," Pase said. "I was surprised that sugary beverage intake was not associated with either the risks of stroke or dementia because sugary beverages are known to be unhealthy."
In response to the study, the American Beverage Association issued a statement defending the safety of low-calorie soft drinks.
"The FDA, World Health Organization, European Food Safety Authority and others have extensively reviewed low-calorie sweeteners and have all reached the same conclusion -- they are safe for consumption," the statement said.
"NIH does not mention zero calorie sweeteners as a risk factor," the ABA added.
Previous studies have shown links between consumption of sugary beverages and rates of a variety of diseases, including diabetes, obesity, heart disease and stroke.
Ralph Sacco, a neurologist University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, believes diet sodas affect human health in ways similar to regular soft drinks. Sacco penned an editorial that accompanied the latest study in the journal Stroke.
"We believe the pathways of which artificially sweetened beverages would affect the brain are probably through vascular mechanisms," Sacco said.