Medicine moves in mysterious ways its blunders to perform. Last week we revealed that antacids, those mild over-the-counter remedies for indigestion, increase your risks of pneumonia by up to three times. Now an important study this week has discovered that pneumonia can cause a five-fold increase in the risk of heart attack and stroke.
So does this mean that you could die of a heart attack after taking a mild antacid? After all, many more of us could be reaching for the indigestion tablets after one of those heavy Christmas-time meals.
Clearly there is a theoretical link, but it becomes a very real one among the elderly. They purchase the majority of antacids that are sold in pharmacies and supermarkets, and they are more likely to succumb to pneumonia and heart problems.
The new study, published in today's New England Journal of Medicine, found an association between respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia and heart attack and stroke. The risk increased five-fold within the first three days of developing the infection, and then subsided over the following weeks.
Prof Patrick Vallance, of University College London, one of the lead researchers, has said: "After the age of 50, we all have some degree of furring up in the arteries, but most of the time it sits there fairly harmlessly. However, during infection stable deposits become unstable and may break off, causing blockages that may lead to a heart attack or stroke".
So let's get this straight. The antacid reduces gastric acid secretion, which allows bacteria and viruses to make their way to the respiratory tract. These, in turn, cause pneumonia, which causes inflammation. This inflammation destabilizes fat deposits around the arteries, causing a heart attack or stroke. And who would have thought this could have been caused by an antacid you'd taken several weeks before.