Heartburn is more common among the overweight and obese, people who smoke and pregnant women, although most people experience heartburn at some point in their lives.
There are no racial predispositions for the development of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD), the condition most often associated with heartburn, but middle-aged Caucasian men seem to be at increased risk for Barrett’s oesophagus, one of the more serious complications of GORD.
Heartburn affects people of all ages, including babies and young children. In babies, milk tends to flow back up into the oesophagus and out of the mouth, simply because the lower oesophageal sphincter isn’t fully developed yet. In some infants, this could lead to gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) and more severe symptoms. Fortunately, most children outgrow the condition by two years of age – a result of the anti-reflux mechanisms becoming stronger.
A very common medical problem
Heartburn is believed to affect 25% of adults in the western world at least once a month, while 5% experience heartburn daily. If extrapolated statistics are to be believed, at least 2,5 million South Africans regularly experience heartburn.
According to local gastroenterologist Dr Estelle Wilken, who is based at Tygerberg Hospital in Bellville, heartburn certainly is one of the most common medical problems in South Africa, and a symptom that’s directly linked to the growing incidence of overweight and obesity in this country. South Africa has the highest rate of overweight and obesity in sub-Saharan Africa, with up to 70% of women and a third of men being classified as overweight or obese.
Worldwide, the prevalence of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD), one of the common causes of heartburn, appears to be highest in North America and Europe. Unfortunately, insufficient data from Africa means that the extent of the problem is less clear here. No population-based studies have been done in Africa.
Reviewed by Dr Estelle Wilken, senior specialist in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology at Tygerberg Hospital. March 2017.