Obesity causes number of heartburn sufferers to soar (and women are more likely to be affected)
Huge rise in people suffering from acid reflux, which causes heartburn, linked to obesity and fatty foodsExperts are concerned because reflux can trigger oesophageal cancer, which is also on the increase

Obesity is driving a 50 per cent rise in people suffering acid reflux over the last decade, according to new research.

Experts are concerned because reflux, one of the main causes of heartburn, can trigger oesophageal cancer, which is also on the increase.

The condition where acid from the stomach leaks up into the gullet, or oesophagus, has been linked to obesity, diets high in fatty foods, alcohol and smoking..

Heartburn: The number of people suffering acid reflux has jumped almost 50 per cent in a decade, according to researchers

Heartburn: The number of people suffering acid reflux has jumped almost 50 per cent in a decade, according to researchers

Obesity increases reflux because abdominal fat puts pressure on the ring of muscle at the bottom of the oesophagus – the 10-inch tube connecting the throat to the stomach – which normally prevents stomach acid from flowing back.

However, some people develop acid reflux for no known reason while others have a problem with the muscle itself.

Symptoms of the condition, include heartburn, an unpleasant sour taste in the mouth caused by stomach acid coming back up the gullet and difficulty swallowing.

It is treated with advice on lifestyle such as losing weight and acid-suppressing drugs.

The latest research found the proportion of people suffering reflux rose from 11.6 per cent in 1995-97to 17.1 per cent in 2006-09, a jump of 50 per cent.

The research involving almost 30,000 people in Norway also found women are more at risk than men of developing the condition, known medically as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (Gord).

Middle-aged people suffered the most severe symptoms, said the study published in the medical journal Gut.

Between 1995-97 and 2006-09 the prevalence of acid reflux symptoms rose 30 per cent, while that of severe symptoms rose by 24 per cent.

The prevalence of acid reflux symptoms experienced at least once a week rose by 47 per cent.

Women under 40 were the least likely to have any acid reflux, but were more likely to develop symptoms as they got older.

The prevalence was stable among men, regardless of their age.

Almost all of those with severe acid reflux experienced symptoms and/or used medication to treat them at least once a week, compared with around one in three of those with mild symptoms.

Acid reflux symptoms can spontaneously disappear without medication, but this happened to only one in 50 people with symptoms each year during the study.

“We need to identify earlier people at risk of what is an epidemic of oesophageal cancer, and one that has so recently killed the writer Christopher Hitchens”

The link with oesophageal cancer is caused by changes in cells in the gullet, possibly from cancer-causing agents contained within the stomach acid.

The researchers, from Norway, Sweden and King”s College London, said: ‘The increasing prevalence of acid reflux is alarming, because it will most likely contribute to the increasing incidence of cancer of the oesophagus in the western population.’

Professor High Barr, secretary of theBritish Society of Gastroenterology”s oesophageal section, said occasional reflux affected as many as one in five people.

But severe reflux, where sufferers experience persistent episodes of heartburn, should be investigated because it may be causing changes to the lining of the gullet that couldlead to cancer.

Professor Barr said: ‘Having indigestion after a curry isn’t necessarily a cause for concern, and about half of those with persistent reflux will not have any damage to their gullet.

‘But we need to identify earlier people at risk of what is an epidemic of this type of cancer, and one that has so recently killed the writer Christopher Hitchens.’

The UK has the highest rate of oesophageal cancer in Europe, particularly adenocarcinoma, the main typeof oesophageal cancer that is on the up.

High levels of alcohol consumption – aggravated by smoking – are well-known risk factors for the disease.

Experts say that by not smoking or drinking alcohol, and by choosing a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight, most of the 8,000 oesophageal cancer cases that are diagnosed each year in the UK could be prevented.

Professor Barr said: “’We have several national trials under way to find the patients who need regular endoscopies – where a telescope is put down the gullet to look for damage – and treatment for pre-cancerous changes.”

Dr Stuart Riley, chairman of the British Society of Gastroenterology”s oesophageal section, said ‘This study reflects our concern that the incidence of oesophageal cancer is rising and we are seeking with the Department of Health to develop appropriate strategies to alert our population to the risk of persistentsevere heartburn.’