The list of problems that come with taking heartburn medication just got longer, with a new study saying they may raise seniors’ risk of developing dementia.
The focus of the study, published in JAMA Neurology, was proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). The drugs, which include Prilosec, Nexium and Prevaci, work by lowering the amount of acid the stomach produces. Britta Haenisch and colleagues at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Bonn studied 73,679 people ages 75 and older. The researchers found regular PPI users had at least a 44 percent increased risk of dementia compared with those not using the drugs.
The researchers caution that the risk could only be considered an “association,” until more research could be conducted to produce more conclusive evidence. But the findings indicate “the avoidance of PPI medication may contribute to the prevention of dementia.”
How PPIs might increase the risk for dementia is unclear. But other researchers recently reported that, in the brains of mice, PPIs seem to increase levels of a damaging protein that accumulates in the brains of dementia patients, known as beta-amyloid.
Other PPI Side Effects
It isn’t the first time that PPIs have been linked to unwanted side effects. The drug has also been linked to low magnesium levels. It also raises risk for gastrointestinal infection, kidney disease, fracture, pneumonia and Clostridium difficile infection.
How the drug works could determine the cause of the problem. PPIs block the production of stomach acids, which help digest food and serve as a barrier against ingested pathogens. When there are less stomach acids, people become vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies and infections.
Study author Britta Haenisch, from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, said that patients should take the drugs according to the instructions of doctors, who in turn should make sure not to overprescribe PPIs, which commonly happens.
However, many people also have trouble discontinuing PPIs because the amount of acid in their digestive systems surges when they stop taking the drug causing a great deal of pain.
As more problems emerge experts encourage people to make sure they really need PPIs before they start taking them. Heartburn should first be treated by making lifestyle changes, such as losing weight and cutting back on alcohol, caffeine and spicy and fatty foods. Also ensure you don’t stay on them longer than needed. PPIs are usually supposed to be taken for two to eight weeks, although doctors may recommend more.
The companies that make PPIs say they’re safe for most people if they use them the way they’re supposed to. And doctors say many people really need to take a PPI for severe heartburn. But they should try everything else first, keep an eye out for any side effects, and talk to their doctor about how long they should stay on it.
An estimated 15 million Americans currently use PPIs, which are sold by prescription and over the counter under a variety of brand names, including Nexium, Prilosec and Prevacid.
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