This article originally appeared on Live in the Now.
A study from the Washington University School of Medicine links common heartburn drugs, such as Prevacid, Prilosec and Nexium, with a higher risk of early death. The longer the heartburn drugs are used, the more the risk rises.
This class of medications called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are some of the most commonly used drugs in America. Doctors prescribe PPIs, as well as H2 blockers like Pepcid and Zantac, for reflux disease, upper gastrointestinal tract bleeding and esophageal cancer. Many people reach for over-the-counter PPIs for heartburn and indigestion.
The study is the latest in a body of research that reveals serious problems with PPIs. Earlier investigations associate them with severe kidney damage, stroke, bone fractures, pneumonia and dementia.
Since each of the side effects carries a risk of death, the scientists in the study speculated that PPIs might affect the mortality rate of users. To test their postulation, they identified 275,000 patients who had been prescribed PPIs and 75,000 patients who had been prescribed H2 blockers between 2006 and 2008. They then noted the number of deaths that occurred in the following five years.
PPIs Increase Death Risk 50 Percent After One to Two Years
“No matter how we sliced and diced the data from this large data set, we saw the same thing: There’s an increased risk of death among PPI users,” said senior author Ziyad Al-Aly, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine. “For example, when we compared patients taking H2 blockers with those taking PPIs for one to two years, we found those on PPIs had a 50 percent increased risk of dying over the next five years. People have the idea that PPIs are very safe because they are readily available, but there are real risks to taking these drugs, particularly for long periods of time.”
For every 500 people taking PPIs, it was determined that one needless death occurred. Because millions of people take the drugs, this means thousands of preventable deaths happen every year, said Al-Aly.
Moreover, the risk increased steadily over time. After 30 days of use, the difference in death likelihood between the PPI users and H2 blocker users wasn’t significant. However, among those taking PPIs, the risk of death increased 31 percent after six months and 50 percent after one to two years, compared to those taking H2 blockers.
PPIs Should Only Be Taken a Short Time
“A lot of times people get prescribed PPIs for a good medical reason, but then doctors don’t stop it and patients just keep getting refill after refill after refill,” Al-Aly said. “There needs to be periodic re-assessments as to whether people need to be on these. Most of the time, people aren’t going to need to be on PPIs for a year or two or three.”
AL-Aly advises weighing the benefits to the risks before taking PPIs. Prior studies indicate the drugs are overprescribed. Moreover, the study suggests that part of the extra risk is coming from people who actually didn’t need to take the drugs. It found that individuals without digestive problems who took them were among those with the highest likelihood of early death. The study was published in BMJ Open.
Natural Alternatives to Consider
Although medications are the allopathic tool used to treat heartburn, alternative medicine practitioners recommend treatments that carry no health risks, such as apple cider vinegar and other natural agents. Prevention is also important, and this can be sought through following a plant-based eating plan like the Mediterranean diet. Avoiding drinking carbonated beverages and foods that trigger the condition, along with eating smaller meals can also help.