Don’t Take the Purple Kill: Heartburn Drugs Like Nexium May Cause Dementia

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The Claim:

In 2016, a claim was popularized on the internet that a certain classification of drugs for heartburn substantially increase a person’s risk for development of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other cognitive diseases.

The Verdict: 

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) released a stunning research paper in April 2016, citing that women who take Proton-Pump inhibitors like Nexium are 42% more likely to develop a cognitive disease like dementia, while men are 52% more likely. A second, lesser known meta-analysis corroborated the JAMA study’s findings and linked a potential increase in dementia to an increase in the use of PPIs. The authors of this study identified that PPI use in the United States increased dramatically over a decade: “The prevalence of the use of PPIs in the US has increased from 4.8% to 8.5% among women and from 3.4% to 7.0% among men.” 

PPIs are one of the most prescribed drug classifications in the world. Drugs within the classification, like Prevacid, Prilosec, and Nexium, have received over-the-counter (OTC) blessings from U.S. Federal Drug Administration, making them readily available to the public. The FDA did not consider PPIs chronic effects before approving OTC status.

Just about everybody in the United States, at one point or another, has used a PPI over a short term period, perhaps 1 or 2 weeks. The JAMA study, however, looked at chronic use of PPIs over a seven year interval from 2004-2011. Participants in the study were senior citizens, at least 75 years old, who agreed to be followed over a long-term period. With all other variables controlled, the study found a substantially higher risk of dementia for senior citizens using chronic PPIs. Data from a study of mice who were exposed to chronic PPIs produced the same results: cognitive decline and increased levels of B-amyloid plaque. This could certainly have implications for younger people who take PPIs as well. As a part of their conclusions, the authors write:

The avoidance of PPI medication may prevent the development of dementia. This finding is supported by recent pharmacoepidemiological analyses on primary data and is in line with mouse models in which the use of PPIs increased the levels of β-amyloid in the brains of mice. Randomized, prospective clinical trials are needed to examine this connection in more detail.”

If someone takes a PPI and can’t get off of it, there are some suggested approaches to counteract the buildup of B-amyloid plaques, which is suspected to cause cognitive decline. One of the best ways might be through the consumption of fatty fish, rich in Omega 3s. But to fully prevent PPI effects on the brain, a person has to stop using the PPI and convert to a natural approach to treating heartburn or GERD. Weight loss, dietary modifications like consuming high fiber and more vegetables, and a probiotic or digestive enzyme regimen are great alternatives to PPIs. While probiotics and digestive enzymes can be more expensive than a box of Nexium, it might be worth the money to save your brain.

[Editorial credit: Keith Homan / Shutterstock.com]