Common heartburn drug ‘killing thousands every year’

Commonly prescribed heartburn drugs could raise the risk of an early death, according to a new study by the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The drugs, which are known as PPIs (proton pump inhibitors), are used to treat ulcers and heartburn.

The researchers examined medical records of 275,933 users of PPIs and 73,355 people who took another class of drugs – known as H2 blockers – to reduce stomach acid. The prescriptions were made between October 2006 and September 2008. They noted how many users died – and when – over the following five years.

They found a 25 per cent increased risk of death in the PPI group compared with the H2 blocker group. The researchers calculate that, for every 500 people taking PPIs for a year, there is one extra death that would not have otherwise occurred. Given the amount of people who take PPIs regularly (the NHS makes 50 million prescriptions a year) this could translate into thousands of excess deaths annually.

Although the recommended treatment for most PPIs is short – two to eight weeks for ulcers, for example – many people end up taking the drugs for months or years.

After 30 days, the risk of death in the PPI and H2 blocker groups was not significantly different, but among people taking the drugs for one to two years, the risk to PPI users was nearly 50 per cent higher than that of H2 blocker users.

The study’s senior author, Dr. Al-Aly, said: ‘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.’

‘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.’

‘If I needed a PPI, I absolutely would take it. But I wouldn’t take it willy-nilly if I didn’t need it. And I would want my doctor to be monitoring me carefully and take me off it the moment it was no longer needed.’

  • Kandanada

    One would assume that people with heartburn or poor digestion were statistically more likely to be in poor health and so it would follow that those on proton pump inhibitors would be more likely to die.

    • Shona Graham

      One would assume the H2 inhibitor group also had the same conditions and just as statistically likely to die yet it is this difference that is being raised.

      • Kandanada

        No, and the reason is self-evident.

        As a generalisation, those using PPIs are in poorer health than those using H2s.

        This is because H2s are available over-the-counter but PPIs are not.

        Therefore it would be logical to conclude that H2s are bought by those with less severe symptoms and that those with more acute symptoms would seek prescriptions for PPIs.

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