Before you pop a Prilosec to prep for your next heavy meal, consider this: A new study finds the use of certain common heartburn drugs is associated with a higher risk of heart attack. Specifically, Stanford University researchers found that people who take proton pump inhibitors—drugs that block the release of stomach acid, a group that also includes Nexium and Prevacid—have a 16% to 21% increased risk of heart attack. The study, published yesterday in PLOS ONE, doesn't prove a cause-effect link, but one of the authors tells the Washington Post, "We do think patients should think about their risks and benefits and should discuss their risk with their doctors." Some of the meds can be purchased over the counter, which the study calls "worrisome;" the lead author adds, "If you are taking these for more than two weeks without telling your doctor, tell your doctor."
Proton pump inhibitors are taken by millions, and the researchers looked at millions of records from millions of patients to reach their conclusions. They are commonly considered harmless other than for patients taking a certain blood thinner, but another senior author notes they may not actually "be as safe as we think." Another researcher says the FDA "should be aware of these findings," but notes that a clinical study is needed to determine whether the medications actually cause heart attacks. As for what could be causing the potential link, researchers think it might have to do with the drugs reducing nitric oxide production in the circulatory system; lower levels of nitric oxide are linked to heart problems, and researchers are currently testing the theory. Still need something for your heartburn? For treatments that work differently, such as Zantac, no increased risk of heart attack was found, a press release notes.