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Medications don’t fix the problem: At least one in three American adults suffer from acid reflux

Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is incredibly common in the U.S., affecting a third of American adults each week. Because it is so prevalent, pharmaceutical companies have come up with several drugs that claim to address it, but a new study shows that these medications are simply not alleviating people’s symptoms – and they come with significant risks.

GERD causes heartburn and other discomfort when gastric acid from a person’s stomach flows back up into their esophagus. It usually occurs when the muscle that briefly opens from the esophagus to let food into the stomach relaxes for too long or too often. In addition to leading to the burning feeling in the chest and throat known as heartburn, it can also cause food to be regurgitated and damage tissue.

In a large study carried out by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, 71,000 people were asked if they experienced a list of specific symptoms of GERD. If so, they were asked how often they experienced each symptom and whether or not they were taking medication for it. Some of the symptoms included in the study were related to GERD, such as gastroesophageal reflux, acid reflux and heartburn, along with other general gastrointestinal symptoms such as constipation, nausea and abdominal pain.

The researchers discovered that more than half of people with GERD who took the popular over-the-counter medications known as proton pump inhibitors, or PPIs, continued to experience persistent symptoms. These drugs are designed to reduce the amount of acid in a person’s stomach, but they are apparently not giving people much relief.

Moreover, the study showed that certain groups of people were less likely to respond to proton pump inhibitors. These included women, younger people, those with Crohn’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome, and Latinos.

More than half of people taking PPIs still experience symptoms

Just over 44 percent of the survey’s respondents said they had experienced symptoms of GERD in the past, while 30.9 percent had experienced them within the last week. More than one third of those with GERD said they were getting some type of therapy for it, with the majority being given proton pump inhibitors. Among the group taking PPIs, a concerning 54.1 percent were still experiencing persistent symptoms of GERD.

The study is considered one of the biggest and most diverse studies on gastrointestinal symptoms; previous studies were conducted in smaller geographical areas or with a sampling that did not represent the population very well. The researchers measured how severe patients’ symptoms were using validated questionnaires provided by the National Institutes of Health.

The study may have overestimated GERD prevalence because it was described to participants as a “GI Survey,” which means those with gastrointestinal issues may have been more interested in responding. Nevertheless, it provides valuable insight into just how poorly the current treatments are performing when it comes to addressing this issue.

Not only are PPIs not helping people get relief, but they are also putting them at greater risk of illness. A study published in JAMA Neurology found that using PPIs dramatically raised older adults’ risk of developing dementia. In the study, seniors who took a PPI were 44 percent more likely to be diagnosed with dementia than their peers. Although the study only found an association rather than cause and effect, it is something patients should keep in mind when considering these drugs.

PPI use has also been linked in studies to kidney disease and kidney failure. A study of health data from 190,000 participants across 15 years found a correlation between PPI use and a 20 percent higher risk of chronic kidney disease as well as quadruple the risk of kidney failure.

Like so many other medications, proton pump inhibitors are harming people rather than helping them. The idea of a quick fix might be appealing, but weight management and dietary changes are far more effective in controlling heartburn – and they do it without raising your risk of disease.

Sources for this article include:

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