Common Heartburn Meds Linked to Increased Risk of Death

A man feels the pain of heartburn.
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People who take a popular type of heartburn drug may be at an increased risk of dying over a five-year period, a new study finds.

People in the study who took proton-pump inhibitors, or PPIs, had a higher risk of dying over the more than five-year study period than people who took another type of heartburn drug, as well as those who took no heartburn medications at all, the study found. The prescription drugs Prevacid and Nexium are in this category of medicines.

Nearly 8 percent of American adults have been prescribed a PPI, according to the study, published today (July 3) in the journal BMJ Open. PPIs are also available over-the-counter at lower dosages than they are in the prescription versions. [7 Bizarre Drug Side Effects]

But up to 70 percent of people who take PPIs may not need them, the study authors wrote. That is concerning because the medications have been linked to a number of health problems in recent studies, including increased risk of kidney disease and dangerous bacterial infections.

"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," senior study author Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, an assistant professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis in Missouri, said in a statement.

In the study, the researchers looked at data on more than 6 million people in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs database. They compared more than 275,000 people who were prescribed a PPI between October 2006 and September 2008 with nearly 75,000 people who were prescribed a different type of heartburn medication called an H2 blocker during the same period. In a separate analysis, the researchers looked at VA data on more than 3 million people who did not take PPIs (who may or may not have taken H2 blockers), in order to compare the risk with that group.

Compared with patients taking H2 blockers, patients who took PPIs had a 25 percent increased risk of dying from any cause over the next five years, the researchers found. And people's risk of death increased as PPIs were used for longer periods of time: For people who took the drugs for up to two years, the risk of death was 50 percent higher during the study period, compared with those taking H2 blockers.

"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," Al-Aly said.

Still, the researchers noted that their study was observational, and didn't prove a cause-and-effect. In other words, the findings don't mean that PPIs cause death. More research is needed to understand the link between PPIs and the risk of dying during a given period, they wrote.

In addition, the study had several limitations. For example, the majority of the people included in the analysis were older white veterans, so the findings may not apply to other groups of people, the researchers wrote. [5 Ways Gut Bacteria Affect Your Health]

Al-Aly noted that the study's findings don't mean patients should throw away their PPIs. "A lot of times people get prescribed PPIs for a good medical reason, but then doctors don't stop" the prescriptions, and patients just keep taking them, he said. "There needs to be periodic reassessments as to whether people [still] need to be on these," he said.

"I would want my doctor to be monitoring me carefully and take me off [the PPI] the moment it was no longer needed," Al-Aly added.

Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.