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Energy drinks linked to sudden cardiac deaths in young people

July 06, 2015

SPRINGFIELD - Doctors and researchers have long discussed the health risks of energy drinks – filled with high amounts of sugar and caffeine – for many adolescents and young adults who chug them down with gusto.

Energy drinks contain high, unregulated amounts of caffeine, as well as other substances that can act as stimulants, such as guarana and taurine.

“These are stimulants that are not regulated by the FDA and their effects on the developing brain and heart are not well known. Guarana derives from a plant in the Amazon, and contains caffeine and other extracts of stimulants. In fact, it has been reported as the cause of serious arrhythmias,” said Dr. Anna Tsirka, a pediatric cardiologist at Baystate Children’s Hospital.

Caffeine - by far the most popular stimulant - has been linked to a number of harmful health effects in children, including effects on the developing neurologic and cardiovascular systems.

Now comes a new study published recently in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology citing energy drinks as the cause of many sudden cardiac deaths in young people – the result of high amounts of sugar and caffeine, which can aggravate underlying heart issues and cause fatal arrhythmias.

“The combination of caffeine and other stimulants can be deadly,” said Dr. Tsirka.

She noted that more than 34 deaths have been attributed to energy drinks in the last decade, and emergency room visits related to energy drink consumption have more than doubled, mostly due to arrhythmias.

And, there are other health concerns to worry about, noted Dr. Tsirka.

“Several of these energy drinks contain sugar or fructose, further contributing to the epidemic of obesity. Consumption of energy drinks has been shown to also result in higher blood pressures both at rest and during exercise,” said the pediatric cardiologist.

The study’s authors offered the following safety guidelines cautioning that:

• One can (250ml) of an energy drink per day is safe for most healthy adolescents.

• Energy drink consumption before or during sports practice should be avoided.

• Adolescents with clinically relevant underlying medical conditions should consult cardiologists before drinking energy drinks.

• Excessive energy drink consumption together with alcohol or other drugs, or both, may lead to adverse effects, including death.

However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends – because of the potential health risks posed by energy drinks as a result of the stimulants they contain – that they should never be consumed by children or adolescents.

“In fact, the AAP has taken it a step further by urging medical providers to ask teenage patients if they consume energy drinks and to discuss their dangers whether consumed on their own or mixed with alcohol,” said Dr. Tsirka.

Yet, there is something more to consider.

“There appears to be a strong and consistent positive association between the use of energy drinks and risk-taking behaviors engaged in by adolescents,” said Dr. Tsirka.

A study from Brown University found that "energy drink users were more likely than caffeinated-only beverage users to report having ‘gotten into trouble at home, school, or work.’"