You have likely heard of the many downfalls to drinking sugar-sweetened soda. It leads to weight gain, raises blood sugar, and negatively affects liver and brain function, to name just a few of the many reasons for avoiding it. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health found, for the first time, that sugar-sweetened soda consumption is linked to cell aging. Specifically, the more people drank soda, the shorter were their telomeres. Telomeres are the protective caps of chromosomes inside cells, and their length is associated with human lifespan. That is, the longer your telomeres, the longer your life.

“Telomere shortening starts long before disease onset,” noted Elissa Epel, PhD, lead researcher. “Further, although we only studied adults here, it is possible that soda consumption is associated with telomere shortening in children, as well.”

So not only do sugar-sweetened beverages contribute to diabetes and cardiovascular disease via their effects on obesity, but they may also affect cell aging of tissues. Daily consumption of a 20-ounce soda was linked to 4.6 years of additional biological aging, similar to that which occurs by smoking cigarettes, or the opposite of the protection of regular exercise.

The researchers analyzed data from over 5,300 people aged 20 to 65 years old. About 20 percent of the study participants, a nationally representative sample, reported drinking at least 20 ounces of sugar-sweetened soda daily. About five percent of Americans consume the equivalent of four cans of soda daily.

More research is planned to determine whether this link is causal. In the meantime, sugar-sweetened sodas have been linked with so many negative health effects that it’s a good idea to eliminate them altogether. If you still crave a carbonated beverage, try a natural soda sweetened with stevia, or add a splash of pomegranate juice and lime to carbonated water for a refreshing treat.