Can sugary drinks age your brain?

The United Nations 2015 report on world population ageing indicated that the number of people aged 60 and older worldwide is projected to more than double in the next 35 years, reaching almost 2.1 billion people and most of this growth will come from developing regions of the world1.  

Ageing is associated with a decline in many human body functions and changes in body composition including the brain. The ageing brain has a significant impact on our ability to function and remain independent in our old age.   

This week, a new study reported findings on a relationship between consumption of sugary beverages and early signs of Alzheimer’s disease that is worth sharing. Alzheimer’s is a brain disease that causes dementia and is the most common cause of dementia in older people.

Alzheimer’s disease is progressive and slowly destroys memory, thinking skills and eventually the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. Ageing is the most significant risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and affects mainly people over the age of 65 years.

Ageing-related changes in the brain such as decreasing size, structure, blood vessels and chemicals may contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. For instance, the volume of the brain and/or its weight declines with age at a rate of around 5 percent per decade after age 40 with the actual rate of decline possibly increasing with age particularly over age 702

The Sugar-Brain link

The brain is dependent on sugar as its main source of fuel but too much of energy from sugar can also be detrimental to the brain. Results from animal studies show that diets with higher sucrose content result in memory impairment through various mechanisms including inflammation3. In the recent U.S. report on sugar and brain ageing, about 4,000 people over 30 years of age, participating in the community-based Framingham Heart Study were included in the research4. Participants’ brains were examined using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.

Psychological tests were used to measure their memory, whilst their intake of sugary beverages was estimated using food frequency questionnaires. The “sugary beverages” included soft drinks as well as fruit juices, which may contain added sugars. The study which was published in the Alzheimer’s & Dementia Journal this year found that relative to consuming less than one sugary drink per day, a higher intake of sugary drinks per day was associated with lower brain volume and lower scores on memory tests. 

These results are an interesting demonstration of a possible link between high sugary drink intake and brain ageing but does in no way provide definite proof that sugary drinks directly causes brain ageing or Alzheimer’s disease.

Life expectancy is improving in Ghana, currently at 62.4 years and rising therefore an expected increase in our older population in years to come. We also consume 10.4 billion litres of fruit juice annually in Ghana according to a 2011 report5 and the potential impact of this on our nation’s health includes obesity, dental caries, type 2 diabetes and now potentially increasing rates of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease in our older population. 

Efforts to tackle the high intakes of sugar sweetened beverages In Ghana may be a beneficial step towards ensuring that our older population remain well, independent and continue to contribute productively to society.


  1. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. World Population Ageing 2015. Report ST/ESA/SER.A/390 en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/ageing/WPA2015_Report. pdf (United Nations, 2015).
  2. Peters R. Ageing and the brain. Postgraduate medical journal. 2006 Feb 1;82(964):84-8.
  3. Lakhan SE, Kirchgessner A. The emerging role of dietary fructose in obesity and cognitive decline. Nutrition journal. 2013 Aug 8;12(1):114.
  4. Pase MP, Himali JJ, Jacques PF, DeCarli C, Satizabal CL, Aparicio H, Vasan RS, Beiser AS, Seshadri S. Sugary beverage intake and preclinical Alzheimer's disease in the community. Alzheimer's & Dementia. 2017 Mar 6. 
  5. Ghana Business and Finance. (2011). Reviving a dying industry: what will it take for local fruit processors to stage a comeback?