ATHENS, Ga. — Aspirin has been considered a cure all among Americans for decades. Aside from acting as an anti-inflammatory and pain reliever, it’s long been considered useful for people dealing with heart problems by helping prevent blood clots, which are the leading cause of heart attacks and stroke. Aspirin use is so widespread, that nearly a quarter of Americans report taking the medication everyday, even if they have no history of heart disease or stroke. However, a new study from the University of Georgia warns that much of Americans’ beliefs about aspirin’s preemptive heart benefits come from outdated research conducted decades ago, that wouldn’t be considered completely accurate today.
In fact, the study’s authors say that unless you’ve already suffered a heart attack or stroke, taking a daily aspirin may actually do more harm than good.
“We shouldn’t just assume that everyone will benefit from low-dose aspirin, and in fact the data shows that the potential benefits are similar to the potential harms for most people who have not had a cardiovascular event and are taking it to try to prevent a first heart attack or stroke,” explains study author and researcher Mark Ebell in a release.
Make no mistake, aspirin definitely has benefits; the drug was first discovered to reduce one’s chances of suffering a heart attack around 30 years ago, and additional research has found evidence that it also lowers one’s risk of stroke and colon cancer. And many have turned to it for more general purposes. Feeling a cold coming on? Take an aspirin. Took a nasty fall? Pop an aspirin to help reduce swelling. Hungover? Many even pop a pill to help with that too.
That being said, aspirin has also always carried some risks as well, such as an increased possibility of internal bleeding within the stomach or brain.
After reviewing decades’ worth of research on aspirin use and its effects, Ebell says that by today’s medical standards aspirin’s harms may outweigh its benefits.
“If you look back in the 1970s and ’80s when a lot of these original studies were done, patients were not taking statin drugs to control cholesterol, their blood pressure was not as well controlled, and they weren’t getting screenings for colorectal cancer,” Ebell says.
Ebell and his team compared patient data-centric studies conducted regarding aspirin between 1978-2002 against four, more modern, large-scale aspirin trials that took place after 2005. That 2005 date is especially relevant because that is when statin use and colorectal cancer screenings became much more common and widespread.
Among a group of 1,000 patients who had taken aspirin everyday for five years, while there were four fewer cardiac events observed, there were also seven more major hemorrhage events. Specifically, the research team say they were very alarmed by the number of aspirin users who ended up suffering internal bleeding in their brain.
“About 1 in 300 persons who took aspirin for five years experienced a brain bleed. That’s pretty serious harm. This type of bleeding can be fatal. It can be disabling, certainly,” Ebell comments. “One in 300 is not something that the typical doctor is going to be able to pick up on in their practice. That’s why we need these big studies to understand small but important increases in risk.”
If someone is concerned about their heart health, but hasn’t actually suffered a heart attack or stroke, Ebell recommends they consult with their doctor about the best course of action before adopting a daily aspirin regiment.
The study ultimately concludes that in light of medical advancements in the treatment of blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes over the past couple of decades, it just doesn’t make sense, especially from a risk-reward perspective, to use aspirin as a preemptive heart health measure.
“There are so many things that we’re doing better now that reduce cardiovascular and colorectal cancer risk, which leaves less for aspirin to do,” Ebell says.
The study is published in the scientific journal Family Practice.