Can drinking soda make you age faster?

Soft drinks are a $61 billion a year business in the U.S. But could drinking soda shorten your life?

A new study in the American Journal of Public Health this week says the answer might just be yes.

The first-of-its-kind study looked at whether America's thirst for soda speeds up how the body's cells age. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, used a sample of 5,300 healthy adults.

"We think we can get away with drinking lots of soda as long as we are not gaining weight," said Elissa Epel, who worked on the study for five years. "But this suggests that there is an invisible pathway that leads to accelerated aging, regardless of weight."

Epel's team discovered that in people who drank more sugar-sweetened beverages, the ends of their chromosomes, known as telomeres, were shorter. The shorter the telomere, the less a cell can regenerate, aging the body and raising the risk of disease and early death.

"This finding is alarming because it suggests that soda may be aging us, in ways we are not even aware of," said Epel.

Researchers found no link in cell aging, however, when drinking diet sodas and fruit juices.

Concerned about possible health effects, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg lost a high-profile court battle to ban large sodas there. "I've got to defend my children and you and everybody else," he said last year.

He's now supporting a measure on the November ballot in Berkeley, California, that would tack on a one-cent per ounce tax on soda distributors.

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia currently tax sodas sold in vending machines.

But helped by ad campaigns from various groups, soda companies are on a four-year winning streak at the statehouse: 30 bills to levy or raise taxes on sugary drinks have all failed.

The American Beverage Association would not do an interview Saturday about the study, but pointed out the researchers did not find a conclusive link between soda and cell aging.