Diet Soda Linked to Depression

Drinking several diet sodas a day might heighten the risk of developing depression, based on a new study from the National Institutes of Health.

The study involved more than 260,000 Americans ages 50 and up. All had originally taken part in a survey in which they recorded their daily soda, tea, fruit punch, and coffee consumption. A decade later, researchers checked in again and asked whether they had been diagnosed with depression in the intervening years.

People who drank more than four cans or cups of soda per day were 30 percent more likely to have developed depression, compared to those who drank no soda. Further analyses showed that the association was stronger for diet soda than for regular soda.

The depression risk was also higher for diet fruit punch and diet iced tea, compared to regular versions of those beverages. Interestingly, coffee seemed to have the opposite effect: People who drank four or more cups of coffee per day were about 10 percent less likely to have developed depression than those who drank no coffee.

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What’s the Missing Link?

What’s the connection between diet drinks and depression? Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer to that question yet. So far, only a summary of the study has been released. Lead author Honglei Chen, MD, PhD, and his colleagues will present more details about their findings at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in March.

Even then, however, definitive answers will await further research. Although this type of study can find intriguing associations, it’s not designed to sort out cause and effect. For now, scientists can only speculate about possible explanations.

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Suspect No. 1: Aspartame

One possibility is that aspartame—an artificial sweetener used in many diet drinks—might affect the brain in ways that increase the risk for depression. One recent study showed that giving mice aspartame caused oxidative stress in their brains. It also inhibited three important brain chemicals: serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine. In humans, depression may be related to low levels or diminished activity of these chemicals.

Suspect No. 2: Obesity and Diabetes

Another possibility is that diet drinks and depression are linked indirectly through a third thing they have in common: obesity and diabetes. Both conditions are common in older adults. And people who are trying to lose weight or keep their diabetes under control are particularly likely to reach for a diet drink instead of one sweetened with sugar. Being obese or having diabetes also increases the chance of becoming depressed. So it could be that the higher depression risk seen in diet soda drinkers was nothing more than guilt by association.

A lot remains to be learned. In a statement about the new study, Dr. Chen summed up what’s known so far: “Our research suggests that cutting out or down on sweetened diet drinks or replacing them with unsweetened coffee may naturally help lower your depression risk. More research is needed to confirm these findings, and people with depression should continue to take depression medications prescribed by their doctors.”

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