New Research: If the Heartburn Doesn’t Kill You, the Cure Just Might

It is estimated that 20% of Americans experience heartburn on a regular basis suffering from sore throat, coughing, hoarseness, difficulty swallowing and tightness in the chest, and they typically reach for acid reflux medication to help control these symptoms. A new research study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the American Heart Association has found that some commonly used acid reflux drugs including Prilosec, Nexium and Prevacid may increase the risk of heart attack.

The research study conducted at Houston Methodist Research Institute and Stanford University found that acid reflux drugs known as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) may increase the risk of heart attack in patients who use them long-term. “Proton pump inhibitors increase the risk of heart attack in the general population by about 15 to 20 percent,” explained Dr. John Cooke of the Houston Methodist Research Institute.

Previous studies found that PPI use may damage the “Teflon-like” lining of blood vessels, which may be responsible for the increased risk of a heart attack. Other well-documented PPI risks include Vitamin B12 deficiency, and increased susceptibility to hip, wrist and spinal fractures.

On a positive note, researchers did not find an increased risk of a heart attack from H2 blockers such as Pepcid AC, Tagamet, and Zantac.

Acid reflux drugs are used to treat reflux and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux) to help reduce acid in the stomach and, in turn, help prevent heartburn. More than 100 million acid reflux prescriptions are filled annually in the United States totaling $14 billion in sales.

It is important to note that researchers did not evaluate whether the subject patients were current or former smokers, were overweight, consumed alcohol, or had other risk factors for heart attack so the research does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between taking PPIs and heart attack, therefore, researchers caution patients not to abruptly stop taking the PPI medications but rather suggest talking to one’s doctor to evaluate whether long-term use of PPIs is necessary, or whether symptoms may be controlled with H2 blockers or lifestyle changes.