DOCTOR'S VIEW ARCHIVE

Is Heartburn Inherited?

Medical Author: Jay W. Marks, M.D.
Medical Editor: Leslie J. Schoenfield, M.D., Ph.D.

Patients occasionally ask me if their heartburn (the main symptom of gastro-esophageal reflux disease, or GERD) is inherited. They usually mention that one or more of their parents, brothers, or sisters suffer from heartburn. Until now, there's not been a lot to tell them. Yes, some studies have shown an increase in heartburn among parents, brothers, sisters, and children of people who have heartburn. However, the association of heartburn within families could be due to inherited genes or it could be due to their shared environment that contains GERD-promoting factors. An important study was published in January, 2002 in the journal Gastroenterology that addressed the issue of the genetics (inheritance) of GERD. It attempted to determine how important inherited genes are as a cause of GERD.

The genetics of heartburn was studied as part of a larger study of twins that were members of the nationwide Swedish Twin Registry. Sets of twins older than 55 years of age were contacted by telephone and asked about symptoms of GERD. The symptoms were defined as heartburn, pain behind the breastbone, and regurgitation of bitter or sour fluid into the mouth. Additional questions were asked to differentiate heart pain from heartburn. They also asked about other factors that are known to influence the development and/or severity of GERD, including weight, tobacco use, alcohol intake, and medications.