WEDNESDAY, Dec. 21 (HealthDay News) -- As the obesity epidemic spreads around the world more people are suffering from acid reflux, likely increasing the number of those who will develop esophageal cancer, a new study suggests.

In Norway, the prevalence of acid reflux, also called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), has risen almost 50 percent in the past 10 years, say researchers led by Dr. Eivind Ness-Jensen, from the HUNT Research Center's Department of Public Health and General Practice at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Levanger.

The increasing number of people who are obese is "the main attributable factor," he said.

Ness-Jensen said the same trend of rising GERD symptoms is happening in the United States and all Western countries.

"The problem is that these symptoms are associated with adenocarcinoma of the lower esophagus," Ness-Jensen said. "What we are afraid of is increasing incidence of this cancer, which is increasing already. It might get worse in the future."

There are few treatments for this cancer and the prognosis is "very poor," Ness-Jensen said. "Luckily, very few people get it, but it is increasing quite rapidly."

It is possible that losing weight could reduce the risk of developing GERD and esophageal cancer, Ness-Jensen added. "That's our next study," he said.

The study appears in the Dec. 21 online edition of the medical journal Gut.

The team collected data on almost 30,000 people who took part in the Norwegian Nord-Trondelag Health Study from 1995 to 2009.

Over that time, the prevalence of those with GERD symptoms increased 30 percent and the number of those with severe symptoms increased 24 percent, the researchers found.

Those who had GERD symptoms at least once a week went up 47 percent, they add.

Both men and women of all ages experienced an increase in GERD. However, the most severe symptoms were mostly among middle-aged people, Ness-Jensen's group found.

Among those with the most severe symptoms, 98 percent took medicine to suppress the symptoms, compared with 31 percent of those with mild symptoms, the researchers noted.

Those least likely to have GERD were women under 40, but women were more likely to develop the condition as they aged. Severe symptoms were seen mostly in those aged 60 to 69.

About 2 percent of those with GERD saw their symptoms spontaneously disappear. This occurred mostly among women younger than 40, the researchers noted.

Dr. Daniel Sussman, an assistant professor of gastroenterology at the University of Miami School of Medicine, commented that "symptoms of reflux are increasing in the United States, partly because patients notice it more and doctors are better at noticing it and treating it."

Most important, lifestyle, diet and obesity are causing the increase in reflux symptoms, he said. "My suspicion is that obesity is the biggest contributor to that," Sussman said.

The biggest side effect of GERD is its effect on the patient's quality of life, Sussman said. He said that of course, it's also a risk factor for esophageal cancer.

Sussman said that there is evidence that losing weight will help improve reflux symptoms and lower the risk for cancer.

More information

For more information on acid reflux, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.