Study: Dementia risk may increase with long-term use of acid reflux drugs

People who take a common type of acid reflux drug for more than four years could face a higher risk of dementia later in life, according to a study released Wednesday.

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According to the study, people who took proton pump inhibitors — or drugs that work by reducing the amount of stomach acid your body produces — for more than 4.4 years had a 33% greater likelihood of developing dementia compared to those who did not take the medication.

The study published Wednesday in the medical journal “Neurology,” said that while the research does not prove the medications cause dementia, it does show that sustained use could pose a greater risk for dementia. Dementia afflicts about 1 in 3 American adults ages 85 and older.

“This study does not prove that acid reflux drugs cause dementia,” study author Dr. Kamakshi Lakshminarayan, a neurologist at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis and a member of the American Academy of Neurology, told CNN in an email.

“It only shows an association. More research is needed to confirm our findings in other large study groups and understand the possible link between long-term proton pump inhibitor use and higher risk of dementia.”

More than 5,700 people participated in the study. Participants, who had an average age of 75, did not have signs of dementia at the start of the study. Participants were followed for 5.5 years.

Those who were prescribed the acid-reflux medications were placed in four groups based on how long they took the medications, according to the study.

After adjusting for age, sex, race and health conditions, researchers found that out of the 497 people who took PPIs for nearly 4.5 years, 58 developed dementia.

Those who took the drugs for at least 4.4 years had the highest rates of dementia.

The study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, excluded people who used over-the-counter versions of the drugs, such as Prilosec, Nexium and Prevacid.

Versions of the drugs have been sold without the need for a prescription since 2003.

The research also appeared to show that B12 deficiency could be a link between the overuse of PPIs and dementia.

“Some studies have shown that use of acid reflux drugs may be associated with low B12 levels. And low B12 is associated with impaired thinking and poor memory,” Lakshminarayan said, adding that her team did not have B12 data levels for study participants, so they “could not comment on this theory.”

Fouad J. Moawad, a gastroenterologist and spokesman for the American Gastroenterological Association, told USA Today that past studies with conflicting results on dementia risk can be “confusing for both patients and prescribers.”

He said the design of the new study does not measure other factors that might influence results.

Proton pump inhibitors are “well tolerated drugs and work well for acid-related disorders, " Moawad said. “With that said, PPIs are likely over prescribed. I often advise my patients to weigh the risks and benefits of any medical treatment.”

Channel 11's Lauren Talotta asked the director of behavioral neurology at Allegheny General Hospital to weigh in.

 “This is an important study because it is consistent with other literature that suggests that what you’re taking in…what you’re digesting does have an impact on Alzheimer’s and dementia,” said Dr. Carol Schramke.

Dr. Schramke thinks this study was done well and took a lot of factors into consideration.

 “There’s lots of evidence that the balance of bacteria in our guts has a really big impact on lots of different conditions, including mental health problems, diabetes….” Schramke said. “What you do today does have an influence years later.”