Should you be taking aspirin daily?
It's cheap, easy to find, and, according to some, a miracle drug. But
should you pop an aspirin every day to stay healthy?
More and more research suggests that this medicine protects against
heart attacks, strokes, a variety of cancers, and even preterm birth and
preeclampsia, a condition in pregnancy marked by high blood pressure and
damage to organs such as the kidneys.
And most recently, a study found that salicylic acid, the active
ingredient in aspirin, blocks a protein that can enter brain cells and
trigger the process that leads to their death, as seen in diseases like
Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
it's too soon to add protection against such brain diseases to the
'pros' column when considering whether to take aspirin, says Daniel
Klessig, PhD, a researcher on the new study and a professor at the Boyce
Thompson Institute and Cornell University.
"While the results from our study are exciting and provide great
promise as a possible treatment for neurodegenerative diseases, they
will need to be followed by much more comprehensive studies, including
mouse model work and human clinical studies," Klessig says. Besides, he
says, research likely will lead to compounds derived from salicylic acid
that will be more effective and safer than aspirin.
That question of safety has always been at the centre of the aspirin
debate, even for heart disease. Aspirin's most worrisome quality is that
it can cause bleeding in the upper digestive tract, namely the stomach,
and in the brain. Age increases the risk, as does having a history of
"It's important to discuss the risks and benefits of aspirin therapy
with a physician," says Deepak Bhatt, MD, MPH, executive director of
interventional cardiovascular programs at the Brigham and Women's
An aspirin two-fer?
The US Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel of health
care professionals, added a twist to the debate about whether healthy
people should take aspirin. In September, it posted its draft of new
guidelines about the drug's use by people 50 and older.
The guidelines are the first from a major organisation to recommend
aspirin to protect against cancer, in this case colorectal cancer, as
well as heart disease. They're only for people ages 50-69 who have a 10%
or higher risk of heart attacks and strokes over a 10-year period, and
are not at an increased risk for bleeding. But the task force isn't
recommending that anyone take aspirin solely to lower the risk of
Klessig published a study online first in June that found salicylic
acid also blocks a protein that triggers inflammation linked to certain
cancers, including colorectal cancer and mesothelioma, a rare, serious
cancer usually related to inhaling asbestos.
People with no history of heart disease are at the centre of the
debate about the wisdom of taking aspirin to stay healthy, which is
called primary prevention. While research has established that taking
the drug can reduce the risk of another heart attack or stroke in people
who've already had one, which is called secondary prevention, evidence
that it's worth taking to protect against a first heart attack or stroke
is less clear.
Professional groups are divided on the use of aspirin for primary
prevention. The Canadian Cardiovascular Society doesn't recommend it.
Neither does the European Society of Cardiology. The American Heart
Association and the preventive services task force do recommend it, but
only if the potential benefits outweigh the risks.
While research suggests people have to take aspirin for at least 5
years, if not 10, for primary prevention of heart disease and colorectal
cancer, pregnant women stand to benefit from taking it for only 5 months
or so, a recent study suggests.
Taking a daily baby (of course) aspirin from before the 16th week of
pregnancy onward is a safe, cost-effective way to reduce the risk of
preterm delivery and preeclampsia, the study concluded. Researchers used
mathematical modelling to compare having all pregnant women take aspirin
to the more conservative approaches recommended by the American College
of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (ACOG) and the preventive services
task force. Under ACOG's guidelines, only about 1 in every 300 pregnant
women is a candidate for aspirin, while the task force recommends it for
about 1 in 4.
Both the task force approach and recommending aspirin to all pregnant
women would lessen complications, save lives, and lower health-care
costs far more than the ACOG approach, the researchers write.