Acid reflux, commonly known as heartburn, sends roughly 15 million Americans reaching for medicines like Prilosec or Nexium for relief each day. While these medications can offer great relief after meals and drinks, they may also inadvertently lead to some serious side effects.
A study published Wednesday in the journal Neurology from researchers at the American Academy of Neurology found that patients who take certain acid reflux medications called proton pump inhibitors (PPI) for 4.4 years or more have a higher risk of dementia than those who do not take them. These patients have a 33 percent higher risk of developing the neurodegenerative condition.
However, it’s important to note that the study just found an association between dementia and PPIs. It does not indicate that these acid reflux meds cause dementia. It will take more research to understand exactly what the link is, and whether it will require people to change their habits around taking such medications.
“[Some] people take these drugs regularly, so we examined if they are linked to a higher risk of dementia,” co-author Kamakshi Lakshminarayan, a vascular neurologist at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, said in a statement. “While we did not find a link with short-term use, we did find a higher risk of dementia associated with long-term use of these drugs.”
Unlike an antacid that merely neutralizes the acid in one’s stomach, PPIs lower stomach acid by essentially shutting down the pumps that create too much of it. However, studies have shown that increased and regular use of PPI is associated with increased risks of stroke and even bone fractures.
This latest study adds to the body of evidence that show that PPIs could result in more deleterious effects than previously thought.
To reach their findings, the study’s authors examined 5,712 patients aged 45 or older (average age 75) and did not have dementia when it began. Twenty-six percent had taken PPIs. The researchers divided the entire group up into four groups: those that did not take the drug, those that took the drugs for up to 2.8 years, those who took them from 2.8 to 4.4 years, and those who took them for more than 4.4 years.
Of the group that did not take the drug, roughly 9 percent developed dementia. However, nearly 12 percent of those who took PPIs for more than 4.4 years developed dementia. After adjusting for age, sex, race, and other health related factors, the authors found that those who took the drug over the long term had a 33 percent higher risk of developing dementia than those who never took the drug. Additionally, there was no higher risk of developing dementia for those who took it fewer than 4.4 years.
Of course, there are a few caveats. For one, the authors only checked in with the participants once a year. As such, they could only estimate their usage throughout the year. This could ultimately impact the amount of times they actually did use PPIs. Regular use of PPI could also be an indicator of extraneous factors such as socioeconomic status or health factors that could directly impact dementia risk.
“More research is needed to confirm our findings and explore reasons for the possible link between long-term proton pump inhibitor use and a higher risk of dementia,” Lakshminarayan explained. She later added, “It is important that people taking these medications speak with their doctor before making any changes, to discuss the best treatment for them, and because stopping these drugs abruptly may result in worse symptoms.”