Is It Risky to Take Heartburn Medication?
Heartburn medications can work wonders when it comes to alleviating the painful burning sensation in the chest and throat caused by acid reflux, a condition that affects over 60 million Americans each month. But research has linked a common class of heartburn drugs, called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), to potential health risks — especially when these medications, often meant for short-term use, are taken for a long time.
That’s not an uncommon scenario, health experts say. “Oftentimes patients come into the hospital, they get put on a PPI and then it just never leaves their [medication] list,” says Shawna Stricker, a pharmacy resident at Nebraska Medicine in Omaha. (PPIs — which include lansoprazole [Prevacid], omeprazole [Prilosec] and esomeprazole [Nexium] — are also available over the counter.) The question then becomes: Does the patient “actually need that anymore, or is it causing more harm than good?” Stricker says.
Health risks associated with PPIs
While PPIs are generally considered safe, researchers have uncovered some potential health risks associated with long-term use of the pills.
The study, which did not look at risks associated with over-the-counter PPI medications, included 5,712 adults ages 45 and older. Researchers followed the adults an average of five and a half years and observed that those who had been taking the acid reflux drugs for more than 4.4 years had a 33 percent higher risk of developing dementia than people who never took the drugs. (It’s important to note, however, that most studies have not found an association between PPI use and dementia among older adults.)
What’s the link?
There could be a number of reasons that explain the higher dementia risk in people taking PPIs, says Kamakshi Lakshminarayan, M.D., a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota and senior author on the Neurology paper.
Other research finds that having lower levels of stomach acid from taking PPIs reduces the body’s ability to release B12 from foods, meaning less gets absorbed. And low B12 levels can affect memory and thinking skills, Lakshminarayan explains. (The researchers, however, didn’t measure participants’ initial B12 levels, so they couldn’t say if a decrease in those levels factored into the link they found between long-term PPI use and a higher risk of dementia.)
Concerned? Talk to your doctor
Still, the research available “raises concern,” says Kristina Thurber, a clinical pharmacist at Mayo Clinic who has studied PPI and health risks.
Yibirin stresses that patients on PPIs should take the “lowest effective dose for the shortest duration of time” needed. The problem, he adds, is that patients can access the medications over the counter, and many take them without being monitored on an ongoing basis by a doctor.