(CBS Local) Prescription-strength heartburn drugs are linked with a possible 25 percent increased risk of early death, according to a new study published in the British Medical Journal Open.

The drugs, known as proton-pump inhibitors — or PPIs — typically suppress stomach acid once they are taken. Prescription formulas are normally consumed by patients with severe conditions for long periods of time, while low-dose over-the-counter drugs have only been approved for short-term use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Earlier research has associated PPIs with an increased risk of poor health, said the Washington University School of Medicine’s Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, the study’s senior author.

“A number of studies reported that use (of these drugs) is associated with a number of adverse events including kidney disease, fractures, pneumonia, dementia, C. diff infections and cardiovascular disease,” he told CNN WIRE.

For the new study released Monday, the researchers asked whether PPIs’ association with increased risk of poor health translated to increased risk of early death.

To answer their new question, the team consulted a national U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs database with information about roughly 3.5 million people.

“The VA has the largest integrated electronic medical record system in the world,” Al-Aly said. “This enabled us to look at a large number of patients and follow them up for about six years to examine our research questions.”

The researchers compared people who consumed PPIs with others who took another stomach acid-reducing drug called “histamine H2 receptor antagonists,” also known as H2 blockers.

The people who took PPIs showcased a 25 percent higher risk of death from all causes than those who took H2 blockers, the study estimates.

When the researchers compared PPI users and non-users of H2 blockers, the same 25 percent higher risk of early death was seen, according to the study. Longer use of PPIs also translates to an increased risk.

“In our studies, however we looked at the data, there was always a consistent relationship between (proton-pump inhibitor) use and the risk of death,” Al-Aly said.

But the Science Media Centre, a United Kingdom nonprofit that comments on scientific studies, said this study cannot prove that PPIs are linked to an increased risk of death because the researchers retroactively looked at the medical records of elderly veterans.

About 10 percent of the veterans who were taking PPIs died within one year, the center’s volunteer statisticians noted. This evidence likely suggests that the deaths may be attributed to other health issues.

International drug company AstraZeneca makes Nexium and Prilosec, two popular products that both come in over-the-counter and prescription-strength formulations,

“We are confident in the safety and efficacy of Nexium and Prilosec when used in accordance with the FDA approved label, which has been established through numerous clinical trials,” said Alexandra Engel, a spokeswoman for AstraZeneca, which was not involved in the new study.

The new study did not address over-the-counter PPIs or specific brands of prescription-strength drugs. The study also does not necessarily prove cause and effect, the researchers said.


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