Talk about old dogs and new tricks. It turns out that the most familiar pill in your medicine cabinet, a product first marketed in 1899, may protect you against humankind’s two biggest killers, heart disease and cancer.
Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), used for decades to ease pain, fever and inflammation, was shown in 1988 studies to reduce the risk of a first heart attack by 44 percent and that of all cardiovascular events by 32 percent. Since then, daily aspirin therapy has been recommended for some adults to help prevent heart attacks and strokes. Then, just last December, a study of more than 25,000 people published in the British medical journal The Lancet found that patients taking aspirin regularly to prevent heart problems also had a 21 percent lowerthan- average risk of dying from lung, colorectal or esophageal cancer.
“It’s a very provocative finding,” says Maureen Killackey, M.D., deputy physician- in-chief and medical director of the Regional Care Network for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “But by itself it doesn’t allow us to say aspirin should be taken daily to prevent cancer.”
This study wasn’t designed to examine the aspirin-cancer connection, explains Dr. Killackey, who is also chief medical officer of the Eastern Division of the American Cancer Society for New York and New Jersey. “It was a meta-analysis of other trials—meaning researchers looked at data from other studies to draw conclusions. But it did find that subjects who were taking aspirin for other reasons had fewer cancer deaths than those not on aspirin.”
“If you’re already taking aspirin to prevent heart disease, this study suggests an added benefit you may be getting,” says Beata Pieczara, M.D., a medical oncologist with Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck. “But it’s hard to make definitive conclusions from one study.” Still, don’t be surprised if recommendations change in the near future, says Dr. Killackey, because there are several studies under way looking specifically at the connection between aspirin (a known inflammation fighter) and cancer prevention. “There seems to be a link between inflammation and cancer,” she explains. “Stay tuned, because in the next few years a lot more attention will be paid to this.”
Is aspirin therapy for you?
Taking any medicine brings risks. Aspirin’s include gastrointestinal ulcers, stomach bleeding and ringing in the ears. But the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says a daily aspirin may be right for you to help ward off stroke (if you’re a woman age 55 to 79) or heart attack (if you’re a man 45 to 79). Check with your doctor.
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