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Acid Reflux Drugs Linked to Higher Risk of Dementia

Proton pump inhibitors, used to treat acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), may raise the risk of dementia when taken regularly for more than 4.5 years.

Many people rely on medications like proton pump inhibitors to control heartburn and acid reflux. These drugs reduce acid by acting on enzymes lining the stomach that produce acid to aid food digestion.

However, a new study published on August 9 in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, suggests that taking these medications for too long might increase the chance of developing dementia.

To investigate whether proton pump inhibitors increased the risk of dementia, the scientists recruited 5,712 people who did not have the condition. The participants were 45 years old or older, and their average age was 75.

After determining who took the medications and for how long, the team then divided the participants into groups based on medication use.

The groups included:

  • People who did not take the drugs
  • Individuals who took the medications for up to 2.8 years
  • Those who took them for 2.8 to 4.4 years
  • People taking the medications for more than 4.4 years

After following the participants for around 5.5 years, the scientists found that of the 4,222 individuals who did not take proton pump inhibitors, 415 developed dementia.

When the team calculated the number of participants and how long they were in the study, also called "person-years," they found that the medication-free group had 19 cases of dementia per 1,000 person-years.

However, among those who took the drug for more than 4.4 years, the rate of dementia was 24 cases per 1,000 person-years.

The researchers adjusted the data for demographic and health-related factors. They determined that people taking proton pump inhibitors had a 33% higher risk of dementia than those who didn't take the medications.

Still, there were limitations to the study. For example, the team determined the participants’ proton pump inhibitor intake through annual check-ins and used that data to estimate overall use.

In addition, the researchers did not know whether the participants took other over-the-counter antacids or reflux medications.

"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," said study author Kamakshi Lakshminarayan, MBBS, Ph.D., in a press release.

Lakshminarayan is from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis and a member of the American Academy of Neurology.

"While there are various ways to treat acid reflux, such as taking antacids, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding late meals and certain foods, different approaches may not work for everyone," Lakshminarayan adds. "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."

What are alternatives to acid reflux medications?

Though the analysis did not prove proton pump inhibitors cause dementia, some people may have concerns over the study results and wonder if there is anything else they can do to manage their acid reflux symptoms.

Aside from lifestyle changes like limiting food that aggravates the condition and modifying eating habits, some research suggests that drinking ginger, licorice, or chamomile tea may help manage acid reflux. Also, some people might find their reflux symptoms get better after they avoid drinking coffee.

In addition, 2016 research found that acupuncture improved GERD symptoms in study participants.

Still, before stopping proton pump inhibitors or taking any alternative acid reducers, it's best to talk with a healthcare provider to help make an informed decision.

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