What Diet Drinks May Do to Women Over 50

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Research published by the American Heart Association reveals the potential health risks of two or more diet drinks daily for post-menopausal women.

It's kind of crazy to think that sodas were invented as health drinks, chock-full of medicinal ingredients and dispensed at pharmacies. We really took that one and ran with it: Fast forward to the 21st century and we find that two out of three adults and one out of three children in the US are overweight and obese. Experts agree that sugary drinks have played a major role in the country's obesity epidemic.

With that in mind, the idea of artificially sweetened drinks may have seemed like a grand idea. But alas, it's not so simple. Studies keeps finding new health risks that come with diet drinks – and now we have another study which has just been published in Stroke, a journal of the American Heart Association. And yes, that journal title is the giveaway here.

The researchers found that among post-menopausal women, drinking two or more diet drinks a day was associated with an increase in the risk of having a stroke caused by a blocked artery.

The researchers analyzed the data of 81,714 women (age 50 to 79 years) who were all participants in the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study. The authors say it is one of the first studies to look at the association between consuming artificially sweetened beverages and the risk of specific types of stroke in a large, racially diverse group of post-menopausal women.

When comparing women who drank diet drinks less than once per week, women who drank two or more artificially sweetened beverages per day were:

• 23 percent more likely to have a stroke
• 31 percent more likely to have a clot-caused (ischemic) stroke
• 29 percent more likely to develop heart disease (fatal or non-fatal heart attack)
• 16 percent more likely to die from any cause.

And risks were even higher for some groups of women:

• Women without previous heart disease or diabetes were 2.44 times as likely to have a common type of stroke caused by blockage of one of the very small arteries within the brain.

• Obese women without previous heart disease or diabetes were 2.03 times as likely to have a clot-caused stroke

• African-American women without previous heart disease or diabetes were 3.93 times as likely to have a clot-caused stroke.

The results were calculated after adjusting for stroke risk factors like age, high blood pressure, and smoking.

"Many well-meaning people, especially those who are overweight or obese, drink low-calorie sweetened drinks to cut calories in their diet. Our research and other observational studies have shown that artificially sweetened beverages may not be harmless and high consumption is associated with a higher risk of stroke and heart disease," said Yasmin Mossavar-Rahmani, Ph.D., lead author of the study and associate professor of clinical epidemiology and population health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York.

Since the data collected did not include specific information about what kind of diet drinks were consumed, the researchers were not able to pinpoint types of drinks or ingredients.

"We don't know specifically what types of artificially sweetened beverages they were consuming, so we don't know which artificial sweeteners may be harmful and which may be harmless," Mossavar-Rahmani said.

While the research shows an association between diet drinks and stroke, as an observational study it does not prove cause and effect. Regardless, until we know more, why take the chance? Victorian sodas may have been medicinal, but their modern cousins don't seem to have much of a beneficial side.

You can read more at the American Heart Association.