It seems like every patient over 40 I see is taking, or has been told to take, a baby aspirin a day to protect them from a heart attack. This seems like such an innocuous thing, a tiny white pill given to babies. However, does the risk of this tiny thing outweigh the benefit?
Acetylsalicylic acid, or aspirin, is the original nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAID). It was a folk remedy where ancient peoples would boil willow bark and use it to help fevers. Aspirin’s use commercially as a drug to treat pain, fever, and inflammation dates back to the late 1890s and was the primary drug for these conditions until the 1950s when acetaminophen and ibuprofen were developed. The difference with aspirin, however, is that due to its anti-blood-clotting agents (its ability to “thin the blood”), it is often recommended in low doses as a daily preventative, for example, for those who might be at risk for heart disease or a heart attack. Many have generally come to accept a daily dose of aspirin or baby aspirin as a therapy to staying heart healthy. A recent study, however, challenges the degree of efficacy of aspirin on heart disease and expands aspirin risk concerns of bleeding issues associated with the drug. Let’s review.
The new study was a large randomized controlled trial consisting of over 19,000 participants (aged 70 and older) over a four-year period. Participants received either a daily low dose (100 mg) of aspirin or a placebo and did not know which they received. The results? Researchers found that for every 1,000 person-years there were 10.7 events of fatal or nonfatal cardiovascular disease (e.g., heart attack, stroke, heart failure, coronary heart disease); in the placebo group, this number was only slightly higher at 11.3 events per 1,000. This wasn’t a significant difference. In addition, for every 1,000 person-years, there were 8.6 events of fatal or nonfatal major hemorrhage (e.g., hemorrhagic stroke, intracranial bleeding, etc.); this number was significantly lower in the placebo group, at 6.2 per 1,000.
The study concluded that a daily low dose of aspirin was associated with a higher risk of major hemorrhage with no significant lowered risk of heart disease. So while there is a minimal chance that taking the recommended daily low dose (100 mg) of aspirin as a preventative will ward off heart disease, it’s about twice as likely it will result in a major bleeding event. What does the mean? Quite simply, the aspirin risk of hemorrhage, in most cases, outweighs the minimal heart benefits.
What about other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)? Can you just substitute the aspirin with ibuprofen for example? Definitely not! First, other NSAIDs aren’t associated with an anti-clotting effect, which is the reason daily aspirin is recommended in the first place. And, second, these NSAIDs are accompanied by many dangerous side effects. Let me explain.
Ibuprofen (e.g., Advil), celecoxib (e.g., Celebrex), diclofenac (e.g., Voltaren), naproxen (e.g., Aleve)…it doesn’t matter what the NSAID is, or whether it’s prescription or over the counter, all NSAIDs are bad news. Let’s review a handful of reasons to stay away from these dangerous drugs:
The upshot? Turns out that little tiny pill is not going to help your heart, but may cause other issues. Like anything else, in medicine, what once was dogma is overthrown by new information!
About the Author
Christopher J. Centeno, M.D. is an international expert and specialist in regenerative medicine and the clinical use of mesenchymal stem cells in orthopedics. He is board certified in physical medicine as well as rehabilitation and in pain management through The American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.…