Long-term use of certain acid reflux drugs may elevate the risk of developing dementia, new research has found.

People who take proton pump inhibitors (PPI) for treating acid reflux every day for four-and-a-half years or more are at a 33% increased risk of developing dementia, according to the latest study published in the journal Neurology.

Dementia is the loss of the ability to think, remember and make decisions. More than 55 million people have dementia worldwide, and over 6.7 million individuals aged 65 and above in the U.S. live with the condition.

What are PPI drugs?

Proton pump inhibitors are a class of medications used for treating conditions such as acid reflux, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and stomach ulcers. They function by reducing the amount of stomach acid produced in the stomach lining.

Some examples of PPI are omeprazole, esomeprazole, lansoprazole, rabeprazole, pantoprazole, dexlansoprazole and Zegerid.

PPI and dementia

Researchers analyzed 5,712 participants aged 45 and above who did not have dementia at the beginning of the study. The participants were divided into four groups based on their PPI intake: those who did not use PPI, those who used it for up to 2.8 years, those who used it from 2.8 to 4.4 years and those who used it for more than 4.4 years. They followed up for an average of 5.5 years.

Out of the participants, 26% had taken PPIs. By the end of the study, 10 % of the total participants developed dementia.

The findings suggest people who took PPI drugs for over 4.4 years had a 33% higher chance of developing dementia compared to those who never used these medications.

"This study does not prove that acid reflux drugs cause dementia. It only shows an association. More research is needed to confirm our findings in other large study groups and understand the possible link between long-term proton pump inhibitor use and higher risk of dementia," Dr. Kamakshi Lakshminarayan, a lead author of the study, said.

Researchers believe overuse of PPIs may cause a deficiency of vitamin B12 and impair amyloid metabolism, which are the factors linked to dementia.

"Some studies have shown that the use of acid reflux drugs may be associated with low B12 levels. And low B12 is associated with impaired thinking and poor memory," Lakshminarayan added. However, the study did not evaluate the vitamin B12 levels of the participants.

Alternative strategies to handle acid reflux

1. Lifestyle changes - Simple lifestyle changes such as losing weight for obese people and quitting smoking can help improve acid reflux issues.

2. Adjust your sleep position - Studies show sleeping on the left side can help reduce acid reflux at night. Elevating the head using a pillow while sleeping can also help.

3. Have early dinner - Avoiding heavy meals at night and eating dinner a few hours before sleep will reduce reflux symptoms at night. Avoiding high-fat, high-carb food and limiting carbonated beverages also help in solving issues with digestion and heartburn.

4. Limit alcohol and caffeine - Drinking coffee and excess quantities of alcohol increases the severity of heartburn.