An estimated 15 million Americans use proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) like Nexium, Prilosec, and Prevacid to treat their heartburn, NPR reports. But for these regular users, their risk of dementia has raised exponentially as a result—at least 44 percent compared with non-users, according to research from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Bonn.
In the seven-year study, researchers examined 73,679 people ages 75 and older who didn't have dementia in intervals. The first was a year-long baseline interval (in 2004), followed by a few 18-month intervals, and a final year-long interval (in 2011). The team zeroed in on regular PPI users, defined as using "at least one prescription per quarter in these intervals of omeprazole, pantoprazole, lansoprazole, esomeprazole, or rabeprazole."
Over the course of the study, 29,510 subjects were diagnosed with dementia, and more than half (59 percent) of these men and women had a diagnosis of at least two different types of dementia. Of these individuals with dementia, 2,950 were regular PPI users with an increased risk of at least 44 percent compared with non-users. While the researchers aren't sure what boosts the risk for dementia, other research—conducted on mice—suggests PPIs increase levels of beta-amyloid, a damaging protein that accumulates in the brains of dementia patients.
The problem lies in the medication's own solution to beating the burn: Over-the-counter and prescription pills work by blocking the production of stomach acid, but our stomach acid helps digest food and protects against different pathogens we ingest, NPR explains. When there's less stomach acid, it leaves you vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies and infections like pneumonia and even food poisoning from salmonella. It's also difficult to break down the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients from food that bolster your immune function and pretty much every other bodily function.
Avoiding PPI medications can reduce the risk of dementia, and experts even say most people currently taking PPIs don't really need them. "They could get rid of their heartburn by making lifestyle changes, such as losing weight and cutting back on alcohol, caffeine and spicy and fatty foods," NPR reports. "And many people stay on them a lot longer than they need them, he says. PPIs are usually supposed to be taken for two to eight weeks, although doctors may recommend more." Save your brain, ditch the meds.
Check out the 7 Foods that Cause Acid Reflux to see if the most common (and most irritating) foods and drinks are part of your everyday diet, and if you can treat your own discomfort the natural way.