By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) – People who consume lots of sugary sodas and sports drinks every day may be more likely to die early of causes like heart disease and cancer than people who rarely if ever indulge in these beverages, a U.S. study suggests.

Heavy soda and sports drink consumption was associated with a 28 percent higher risk of early death from any cause, a 31 percent higher risk of death from heart disease and a 16 percent increased risk of death from cancer, researchers found.

“Here in the U.S., about half of the population consumes at least one sugar sweetened beverage per day,” lead study author Vasanti Malik, a nutrition researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, said by email. “Replacing sugar sweetened beverages with other beverages, particularly water, is one strategy to improve health and longevity.”

Sodas, sports drinks and other sugar sweetened beverages are the single largest source of added sugar in the American diet, researchers note in Circulation. Although consumption has declined in the past decade, it has rebounded slightly in recent years – and the typical adult gets about 145 calories a day from these drinks.

The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how sugary drinks might directly cause health problems or send people to an early grave. But it’s likely that both the added sugars and calories in these beverages play a role, Malik said.

That’s because the link between sugary drinks and early mortality wasn’t as strong once researchers accounted for diet and lifestyle factors, including how many calories people consumed.

When people drink sodas and other sugary beverages, they may be more likely to develop risk factors for diabetes, heart disease and other chronic health problems, Malik said. They also may consume more total calories than they otherwise would, which contributes to obesity as well as an increased risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

And the increased risk of cancer seen with sugary drinks is “likely driven by diet-related cancers, including breast cancer and, to a lesser extent, colon cancer,” Malik said.

In the current study, the risk associated with sugary drinks rose with higher consumption for men and women.

Artificially sweetened beverages could be used to replace sugary drinks, but high consumption of the artificially sweetened drinks should also be discouraged, the research team says. That’s because among heavy consumers of sugary drinks, substituting one artificially sweetened drink per day was tied to a slight reduction in the risk of early death. However, women who drank four or more artificially sweetened drinks per day had a higher mortality risk than other women in the study.

Data for the analysis came from 37,716 men in the Health Professionals follow-up study and 80,647 women in the Nurses’ Health Study. Researchers accounted for other dietary factors, physical activity and obesity, so that any effect measured could be independently linked with sugar-sweetened beverages.

During 34 years of follow-up in the nurses’ study, 23,432 women died, including 4,139 who died of heart problems and 8,318 from cancer.

Over the course of 28 years in the health professionals study, 13,004 men died: 3,757 from heart issues and 4,062 from cancer.

More research is needed to verify the connection between artificially sweetened drinks and mortality risk, the study authors note. It’s also possible that results for these study participants might not represent what would happen for other U.S. adults.

Even so, the results add to the mounting evidence that sugary beverages like sodas and sports drinks are harmful, said Nicola McKeown, a researcher at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University who wasn’t involved in the study.

Daily consumers of sodas, sports drinks and other sugary beverages should “cut down substantially,” McKeown said. “These beverages deliver no health benefits.”

SOURCE: Circulation, online March 18, 2019.