Caution: The Hidden Dangers of Heartburn Medicine

Jim Palmer, former player for the Baltimore Orioles and TV commentator, has something in common with millions of other individuals, including myself. He has GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease), which occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus. Similar to my personal situation, Palmer had suffered from frequent and persistent heartburn for many years that he thought was normal. His diagnosis and subsequent treatment was delayed several years until his symptoms worsened and he finally consulted his doctor about it.

Palmer has talked to the media and various organizations about his own personal struggle with heartburn associated with GERD. The following are excerpts from a speech given by Palmer about his experience with GERD, that closely mirror my own experiences:

“I have been sharing with the media my personal experience with frequent and persistent heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Since I began this campaign, I have found that more and more people are identifying their own experiences with frequent and persistent heartburn as reflux disease.

“…I tried changing my eating habits in an effort to allow three hours between eating and going to bed. None of these efforts solved the problem.”

“I normally ate late at night after broadcasting a game and invariably ended up with heartburn. I tried taking over-the-counter products to no avail. I also tried elevating my bed, avoiding the common heartburn food triggers like chocolate, caffeine, and tomatoes, and changing my eating habits in an effort to allow three hours between eating and going to bed. None of these efforts solved the problem.”

“I now recognize that I suffered needlessly before getting the appropriate treatment.”

To keep his GERD under control, Palmer’s gastroenterologist prescribed medication – a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) – for treatment. Through the years, Palmer has spoken publicly in a positive way about his experience with PPIs. He stated that his heartburn and other symptoms of GERD have been under control since taking one pill a day, and that he suffered needlessly before getting the “appropriate treatment.” Similar to Palmer, to alleviate my own symptoms, I have been taking a PPI (omeprazole) for the entire time I have had GERD, until I learned the dangerous truth about it. Now, I am in the process of working with a local chiropractor, Dennis Sievers, who is one of the few doctors in the country who has a program for helping people who are dependent on PPI’s get off of them completely.

PPI Use Increases Risk for Dementia and Heart Disease

Currently, an estimated one in 14 Americans are dependent on an over-the-counter PPI to treat GERD. Considered the most effective treatment for GERD, PPIs are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use.

Sounds good, right? Not quite. The problem is that studies have linked long-term use of PPIs to an increased risk of dementia, cardiovascular disease, and renal failure, but until this year, scientists haven’t known exactly why. Results published in the journal Circulation Research earlier this year found that vascular cells chronically exposed to PPIs accelerate blood vessel aging— an effect that can have an adverse impact on cardiovascular health. This type of damage is synonymous with age-related chronic conditions and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

In another study in JAMA Neurology, German researchers, using a database of drug prescriptions, studied PPI use in 73,679 men and women older than 75 who were free of dementia at the start of the study. Over an average follow-up period of more than five years, about 29,000 developed Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias.

After controlling for age, sex, depression, diabetes, stroke, heart disease and the use of other medicines, they found that regular use of PPIs increased the risk for dementia in men by 52% and in women by 42%, compared with non-users.

“Our study does not prove that PPIs cause dementia,” said the senior author, Britta Haenisch of the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases. “It can only provide a statistical association. This is just a small part of the puzzle.

“Clinicians, pharmacists and patients have to weigh the benefits against the potential side effects,” she continued, “and future studies will help to better inform these decisions.”

In an editorial accompanying the study, Lewis Kuller of the University of Pittsburgh wrote that the findings “provided an important and interesting challenge to evaluate the possible association,” which is a “very important issue given” how commonly the drugs are used by the elderly, who are already at increased risk for dementia.

Holistic Treatment for GERD

Many people, such as me,  start take PPIs when they can’t  get rid of their heartburn by making lifestyle changes, such as losing weight and cutting out alcohol, caffeine and spicy and fatty foods. And many people stay on them a lot longer than they need them. PPIs are technically supposed to be taken for only two to eight weeks, although most people who start taking them wind up staying on them forever, because if you try to go off these medications, your symptoms actually get worse because of something called the “rebound effect.”

The companies that make PPIs say they’re safe for most people if they use them the way they’re supposed to. And doctors say many people really need to take a PPI for severe heartburn.

Kenneth DeVault, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic who is president of the American College of Gastroenterology says if someone really needs a PPI, they should take one. But they should try everything else first, keep an eye out for any side effects, and talk to their doctor about how long they should stay on it.

As I mentioned earlier, I am in the process of working with a local chiropractor, Dennis Sievers, a gifted doctor that is helping me alleviate my GERD symptoms and wean me off of dangerous PPIs that I have been taking for at least 20 years. Before starting my course of treatment with Dr. Sievers, I read numerous articles and a couple of self-help books on how to wean yourself off of PPI’s. I tried these methods, but none of them were in any way successful for me. I am about three quarters of the way through my treatment with Dr. Sievers, and so far his treatment has been successful. I will keep my readers updated on the ultimate result of this treatment, but so far I have great hopes. If you live in Northern Virginia, and you are also a long-term taker of PPI’s, I highly suggest you make a visit to Dr. Sievers (his website is or any other holistic practitioner who helps people with this condition.

At the Farr Law Firm, we care about our client’s health, quality of life, and well-being, which is why we share this sort of information.  Remember, part of taking care of yourself is planning for your future and for your loved ones. If you have not done your own Incapacity Planning or Estate Planning, or if you are caring for a loved one who is beginning to need more care than you can handle, please contact us as soon as possible to make an appointment for a no-cost initial consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888
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