Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), researchers from Washington University in St. Louis have linked proton pump inhibitors, some of the world’s most commonly-used medications, to an increased risk of death.

Do PPI Health Dangers Increase Risk Of Death?

In recent years, the heartburn drugs, which include bestsellers like Nexium and Prevacid, have been associated with a number of severe health risks, including life-threatening kidney disorders. But their effects on life expectancy overall remain poorly-understood. The BMJ article, published on July 4, 2017, may change that.

Led by Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, assistant professor at Washington University’s School of Medicine, a team of public health analysts wondered whether, given all of the health risks to which PPI medications have been linked, the drugs could lead to higher mortality rates. “We started thinking if this is really true that PPIs are associated with all of these adverse events,” Dr. Al-Aly told CBS News, “does that translate to a higher risk of death, an increased risk of mortality.”

25% Increased Risk Of Death

To answer their question, the group used data collected by the federal government, analyzing medical records held by the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

In total, over 349,000 patients were included in the analysis, which compared the death rate among patients who took PPI drugs to the death rate in people taking H2 antagonists (or H2 blockers), an older type of medication that is also used to treat gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and other disorders caused by excessive stomach acid levels.

“The results were clear,” Dr. Al-Aly reports. Compared to patients who took H2 blockers, PPI patients lived at a 25% increased risk of death. That would translate, CBS writes, to “about one extra death for every 500 people taking PPIs for a year.”

“We Were Startled”

“We were startled by this,” Dr. Al-Aly continues. “However we sliced the data, analyzed it, there was always a consistent relationship between PPI use and risk of death.” The researcher is quick to note that people who currently take PPI drugs shouldn’t stop. “It’s a small but significant risk,” Al-Aly says, but it’s definitely “not a fluke.”

Throwing weight behind their analysis, the researchers found a dose-response relationship in the risk of death: the longer a patient took PPI medications, the higher their risk of death grew. As Dr. Al-Aly explains, “the relationship is there and more robust the longer that patients took their medications.”