Study Links Heartburn Drug to Hip Fractures

A new risk has been linked to popular drugs used by millions of Americans to treat heartburn. A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that certain drugs used to control stomach acid may lead to a higher risk of hip fractures in the elderly.

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Millions of Americans use drugs to prevent heartburn and stomach ulcers. Now a study says that older people who use one type of drug are at a higher risk of hip fractures.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: The drugs are called proton pump inhibitors because they inhibit the production of stomach acid that can cause serious heartburn, stomach ulcers and severe inflammation of the esophagus. Top sellers include Nexium, Prevacid and Prilosec.

For years, doctors have debated whether as a side effect these drugs might prevent bone loss or cause it. There are reasons to think it could be either. So a group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania looked at the records of a 150,000 patients. They found that when patients over age 50 used these drugs for a year or more, they were 44 percent more likely to break a hip.

Dr. Yu-Xiao Yang led the research team.

Dr. YU-XIAO YANG (Epidemiologist, University of Pennsylvania): The higher the dosage, daily dosage you're on, the higher the risk. And there seems to be a jump between regular dose daily to twice daily.

SHAPIRO: Yang's an epidemiologist and a gastro-enterologist. He doesn't think people should stop using the drugs, but they should check with their doctors to make sure they're not taking too much, too often.

Dr. YANG: So I think the principle will be basically use the lowest effective dose for whatever the indication that you're using the drug for.

SHAPIRO: Still, Dr. David Johnson, the president of the American College of Gastro-Enterology, says it's too soon to blame the drugs for hip fractures. He says there are medical conditions that block stomach acid, and they haven't been connected to fractures.

Dr. DAVID JOHNSON (President, American College of Gastro-Enterology): People sometimes develop what's called pernicious anemia. These are people that make no acid and these are not people, interestingly, that have problems or at least that we know of have problems with hip fractures. So somehow this starts to raise some question that maybe the disease association is not as strong as this study would imply.

SHAPIRO: The study appears on the journal of the American Medical Association.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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