BOSTON — Just one can of soda each day significantly increases the risk of both liver cancer and chronic liver disease among women, a new study warns. Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who studied a group of nearly 100,000 American women, found that those who consumed sugar-sweetened drinks every day were much more likely to develop liver cancer or die from liver disease. However, the same study also reveals that the daily consumption of artificially-flavored drinks does not lead to a similar increase in the risk of liver cancer.
The research, published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open, was based on data collected from post-menopausal American women over an average period of more than 20 years. This kind of research is particularly important, considering that an estimated 65 percent of U.S. adults consume sugar-sweetened drinks daily.
Chronic liver disease is a major cause of death worldwide, and the annual incidence of liver cancer in the U.S. has more than tripled in the past three decades, rising from three people per 100,000 in 1985 to 9.4 people per 100,000 in 2015. In 2023, doctors are expected to diagnose approximately 41,210 new cases of liver cancer across the nation.
Known risk factors for liver cancer include chronic hepatitis, metabolic disorders such as diabetes and obesity, excessive alcohol consumption, and even foods containing aflatoxin, which is found in nuts and corn. Yet, 40 percent of people with liver cancer do not possess any of these risk factors.
Previous studies have established links between sugary drinks and the risk of developing breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers.
The most recent study’s data was derived from a total of 98,786 women, between 50 and 79 years-old, who were enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) between 1993 and 1998 at 40 clinical centers across the United States. This group was tracked during follow-ups that lasted until March 2020.
Participants were asked to report their usual intake of sugary drinks, regular soft drinks (excluding diet drinks), or fruit drinks, ranging from never to six or more drinks per day, as well as the serving size consumed.
Around 6.8 percent (6,692) of the participants reported consuming one or more servings of sugar-sweetened drinks each day, while 13.1 percent (8,506) drank one or more artificially-flavored drinks daily. Those who consumed more sugary drinks tended to be younger and less physically active.
Over an average of 20.9 years of follow-ups, the research team found that 207 new cases of liver cancer and 148 chronic liver deaths occurred among the WHI participants. The study’s results were measured in “person-years,” a metric that combines the number of people in the study and the amount of time (in years) each person spends in the study. For example, a study that follows 1,000 people for one year would contain 1,000 person-years of data.
The study determined that rates of liver cancer were 18 per 100,000 person-years among women who consumed one or more sugary drinks a day, compared to 10.3 per 100,000 person-years among women who consumed three or fewer per month. The team did not find a correlation between a higher intake of artificially-sweetened beverages and the risk of developing liver cancer.
Rates of chronic liver disease deaths were also recorded at 17.7 per 100,000 person-years for women who drank one or more sugar-sweetened drinks per day, compared to 7.1 per 100,000 person-years for those who drank three or fewer per month. Once again, differences in artificially-sweetened beverage intake were not found to be significantly associated with chronic liver disease mortality.
In conclusion, the authors — representing multiple universities and medical schools across the U.S. — highlighted the higher rate of liver cancer and death from chronic liver disease, emphasizing that future research is necessary to further evaluate these links.
“To our knowledge, this is the first study to report an association between sugar sweetened beverage intake and chronic liver disease mortality,” says first author Longgang Zhao, PhD, of the Brigham’s Channing Division of Network Medicine, in a media release. “Our findings, if confirmed, may pave the way to a public health strategy to reduce risk of liver disease based on data from a large and geographically diverse cohort.”
South West News Service writer James Gamble contributed to this report.
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