Heartburn is a digestive disease afflicting nearly 60 million Americans, each of whom it affects differently. Some people get it when they eat heavy meals, some get by lying down after the meal. Some people experience as children, others as adults. Some people are able to deal with it if it's mild (once a week), some people take over-the-counter medicines (antacids), and for some unfortunate people heartburn turns into GERD. But despite all this, one thing remains clear: heartburn is a disease that distinctively affects the Western population.

In June 2006 a report in the medical journal The Lancet reported on this very topic.[1] To compile data, doctors studied 31 published studies on the prevalence of heartburn symptoms. What they uncovered were 3 interesting statistics about people suffering from heartburn in the Western population:

  • 25% of people suffer from heartburn at least once a month
  • 12% suffer at least once per week
  • 5% suffer daily

Despite how high those numbers are, they explain little more about heartburn than what is already known; after all, estimates the study, the United States spends more than $9 billion annually to manage heartburn. What is most alarming, then, is how the numbers fare in comparison to people suffering from heartburn in East Asian countries:

  • 11% of people suffer from heartburn at least once a month
  • 4% suffer at least once per week
  • 2% suffer daily

So, according to the study, more than twice the amount of people in the Western population deal with heartburn compared to those in the East. But the reason as to why this is the case is tricky. Just as no one knows exactly where heartburn comes from, the researchers cannot say what accounts for these numbers.

When treating heartburn, in addition to taking medicine, sufferers often adapt lifestyle changes. Typically these call for a change in diet. The American diet tends to be heavy in fatty foods cooked in oils. The casual American might think nothing of eating eggs for breakfast, a turkey-and-cheese sandwich for lunch, and fried chicken for dinner.  Over time, cutting back on these types of foods can translates into losing weight, which organizations, like the National Heartburn Alliance, say can help heartburn symptoms.

Unfortunately, noted the authors, most heartburn sufferers do not respond well to lifestyle changes and require further treatment. With this in mind, if you are one of the 1 in 4 Americans who experiences heartburn once a month, it may be best to see your doctor.


[1] Nicholas J Talley, The Lancet, June, 24, 2006.