Monday, February 13, 2012

Does an Aspirin a Day Keep the Cardiologist Away?

Photo by and parsecs to go
Over the last decade, I have heard several people casually mention the benefits of taking aspirin daily as a way to prevent a heart attack or stroke. The only side effect mentioned was the risk of stomach ulcers.

Note: I am not a doctor. Please consult with a licensed medical professional about the medications you are taking, even over the counter medications. 

Recently, I have found that people need to weigh the benefits against multiple risks of taking aspirin daily. My concern is that people often take aspirin on their own initiative without consulting with their physician.

Last week, two dozen of my fellow graduate students and I had the assignment to research, share, and discuss research-based articles on the topic. (The links here are more consumer friendly for the more part.) These readings warned of these risks:

· Stomach ulcers
· Abdominal bleeding
· Bleeding all along the GI tract
· Further bleeding to the brain during a hemorrhaging stroke
· Ringing in the ears
· Hearing loss
· Cataracts
· Allergic reaction
· Interactions with various prescription drugs such as steroids, anticoagulants and other NSAIDs
· Interactions with dietary supplements

Also, people need to exercise caution when ceasing aspirin therapy, because quitting cold turkey can increase the risk of blot clotting.

Aspirin is a household, seemingly innocuous, over-the-counter drug. However, from the list cited above, aspirin evidently can have powerful effects if taken daily.

By discussing aspirin therapy with your physician, you may learn that some people are at higher risk of complications: young people recovering from the chicken pox, pregnant women, heavy drinkers, those taking other meds (including some over-the-counter drugs), those with ulcers, people with arthritis, older adults (starting at 60+ but risk increasing with age; some researchers issue strong cautions for those 75+), and people scheduled for surgery or even dental work. Also, the dose needs to be determined by a medical professional. For example, women generally need a smaller dose.

Even though I am emphasizing the potential problems, aspirin is indeed appropriate for some people at risk for the following health problems: ischemic strokes, transient ischemic attacks (TIAs, also sometimes called “mini strokes”), peripheral artery disease (PAD), or with a current or past history of heart attack. For this selection of people, the benefits of taking aspirin daily could very well outweigh the risks. I am not categorically rejecting it as a course of action. I am just inviting people to exert great caution.

People considering the use of aspirin as a preventive measure against stroke or heart attack must make this decision in conjunction with a physician who is keeping current on the research. And they need to reassess every 5 years or more frequently if they start taking new supplements or new prescriptions, or if they have any change to their health.

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