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Nov 24, 2014 01:05 AM EST

Soda Consumption May Speed Up Aging

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New research suggests that consuming sugary drinks may be associated with cell aging.

Researchers at the University of California-San Francisco found that daily consumption of a 20-ounce soda was associated with 4.6 years of additional biological aging. They also found that telomeres, the protective units of DNA that cap the ends of chromosomes in cells, were shorter in the white blood cells of survey participants who reported drinking more soda.

"Regular consumption of sugar-sweetened sodas might influence disease development, not only by straining the body's metabolic control of sugars, but also through accelerated cellular aging of tissues," Elissa Epel, senior author of the study and professor of psychiatry, said in a statement. "This finding held regardless of age, race, income and education level. Telomere shortening starts long before disease onset. Further, although we only studied adults here, it is possible that soda consumption is associated with telomere shortening in children, as well."

For the study, researchers compared telomere length and sugar-sweetened soda consumption for each participant at a single time point. Based on the way telomere length shortens on average with chronological age, the researchers calculated that daily consumption of a 20-ounce soda was associated with 4.6 years of additional biological aging. This effect on telomere length is comparable to the effect of smoking, or to the effect of regular exercise in the opposite, anti-aging direction.

The length of telomeres within white blood cells -- where it can most easily be measured -- has previously been associated with human lifespan. Short telomeres also have been associated with the development of chronic diseases of aging, including heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer.

The results add a new consideration to the list of links that has tied sugary beverages to obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

The findings were published in the American Journal of Public Health.

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