While consuming sugary soft drinks is often associated with a higher risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cardiovascular death, and certain types of cancer, new research suggests that it can also shorten our lifespan. A recent study conducted at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) has revealed that drinking soda frequently can shorten the length of telomeres within white blood cells, which can be used as a predictor for human lifespan.

“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,” Dr. Elissa Epel, professor of psychiatry at UCSF and senior author of the study, said in a statement.

Epel and her colleagues gathered data using the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys from 1999 to 2002. The study’s sample included 5,309 U.S. adults between the ages of 20 and 65 with no history of diabetes or cardiovascular disease. Participants were asked to recall their diet in the past 24 hours, and researchers used DNA samples to measure telomere length. On average, participants consumed 12 ounces of soda, while around 21 percent reported drinking at least 20 ounces of soda each day.

UCSF researchers determined that drinking 20 ounces of soda a day was linked to 4.6 years of additional biological aging. This conclusion was made by assessing the way telomere length shortens with chronological age. The effect drinking soda had on telomere shortening was comparable to smoking or, in the opposite, anti-aging direction, regular exercise. Previous studies have also associated telomere shortening with chronic diseases of aging, such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

“This is the first demonstration that soda is associated with telomere shortness,” Epel added. “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.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sugary drinking consumption among both children and adults has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, coinciding with America’s obesity epidemic. Around half of the U.S. population over the age of 2 reports drinking a sugary drink on any given day. UCSF researchers are currently working on a second study to test the effect of soda consumption on aspects of cellular aging in real time.

“It is critical to understand both dietary factors that may shorten telomeres, as well as dietary factors that may lengthen telomeres,” said Cindy Leung, postdoctoral fellows from the UCSF Center for Health and Community. “Here it appeared that the only beverage consumption that had a measurable negative association with telomere length was consumption of sugared soda.”

Source: Laraia B, Leung C, Epel E, et al. Soda and Cell Aging: Associations Between Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption and Leukocyte Telomere Length in Healthy Adults From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. American Journal of Public Health. 2014.