The list of soda's potential vices just got longer: A new study links drinking 20 ounces of the fizzy beverage daily to 4.6 years of cellular aging.
“The extremely high dose of sugar that we can put into our body within seconds by drinking sugared beverages is uniquely toxic to metabolism,” study co-author Elissa Epel, professor of psychiatry at University of California San Francisco, told Time.
Specifically, the study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that telomeres, the tips of chromosomes, are shorter in the white blood cells of people who drink sugary soda. Shorter telomeres are associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer.
Past research has shown a similar link between short telomores and smoking; in fact, the smokers' telomeres were also associated with 4.6 years of aging.
The researchers parsed out the soda connection by analyzing stored DNA from 5,309 participants, ages 20 to 65, with no history of diabetes or cardiovascular disease, who had participated in a large ongoing national health survey about 15 years ago. More soda consumption was associated with more accelerated cellular aging, but even eight ounces daily was linked to an additional 1.9 years.
The researchers did not find any connection between shortened telomere length and sugar-free soda or sweetened, non-carbonated beverages such as juice; however, Epel told Time that people may not have been drinking as many of those types of beverages 15 years ago.
The American Beverage Association refused CBS' interview request, but said the study does not show a “conclusive” link between soda and cell aging.
While this study does not pinpoint whether drinking soda causes shortened telomeres, "studies like ours provide initial discoveries that can be explored further in experimental studies, which help to determine the nature of this important relationship," lead study author Dr. Cindy Leung told The Huffington Post.
“We think we can get away with drinking lots of soda as long as we are not gaining weight, but this suggests that there is an invisible pathway that leads to accelerated aging, regardless of weight,” Epel told CBS.
Epel is already working on another study to track participants for weeks, instead of at a single point in time, to more directly study the effects of soda consumption on cellular aging.
The good news is that a healthy lifestyle seems to have the opposite effect on the length of our telomeres.
According to Dr. Dean Ornish, UCSF clinical professor of medicine, who last year announced research linking diet, meditation and exercise to longer telomeres, “Our genes, and our telomeres, are not necessarily our fate."