Your Body

Health effects of aspirin: Where do we stand?

Story highlights

Aspirin can prevent strokes and heart attacks

Ancient Egyptians used aspirin and it was first sold over the counter in 1915

CNN  — 

An aspirin a day, keeps the doctor away. Or does it?

Aside from being a potent painkiller to help with that numbing headache or aching pain in your back, doctors today routinely prescribe a daily regimen of aspirin to help prevent heart attack and stroke. And a number of studies also indicate that they may also be able to decrease your likelihood of certain types of cancer.

A 2015 study in plants (read: the science is still a long ways away) finds that it binds to an enzyme called GAPDH which may play a role in fighting neurodegenerative disease. That means aspirin may be a weapon to use to fight Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease.

This is not the first time a study has shown that, however. A study about a decade earlier in Utah involving 3,000 people who were near dementia or were developing early signs of Alzheimer’s and who used anti-inflammatory medications like aspirin long-term, showed a 45% risk reduction for developing the disease.

But not everyone should be taking the little white pills. Talk to your doctor first about taking it daily. Doctors agree that a low dose – as little as 75 milligrams, which is less than a baby aspirin – can help those patients who have already had (or are at high risk for) a heart attack or stroke. For those with a low risk of heart disease, potential side effects such as internal bleeding and stomach ulcers may outweigh the preventative benefits. While the benefits of aspirin seem strong, always consult your doctor before starting daily usage.

While findings on aspirin’s preventative qualities only date back a few decades, aspirin’s pain relieving quality have been used for thousands of years. As the late medical writer Berton Roueche wrote in his anthology, “The Medical Detectives,” “There are no countries in which it is unknown, unappreciated, or unavailable.”

But the news on aspirin has evolved since since the merits of the popular pain reliever became known long ago. Let’s take a look at the timeline.

Ancient Egyptian headline: Aspirin relieves aches and pains

In fact the word aspirin is derived from the name Spiraea – the genus of shrubs that are all natural sources of the drug’s natural pain relieving ingredient, salicylic acid. According to Dairmuid Jeffreys, author of “Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug,” the ancient Egyptians would use willow bark to alleviate their aches and pains, without every knowing that it was salicylic acid – the natural version of aspirin – that reduced body temperatures and inflammation. Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician, wrote about using willow leaves and bark to relieve pains and fever.

1800s headline: Too much aspirin will make you puke

It wouldn’t be until the 19th century that researchers began understanding how salicylic acid actually worked. In 1874, Hermann Kolbe discovered synthetic salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, but found that in large doses it would cause nausea and vomiting.

1915 headline: Asprin relieves rheumatism

In the 1890s, chemist Felix Hoffmann of Bayer used acetylsalicylic acid to help his father’s rheumatism, and by 1899, Bayer began handing out a powdered version of the acid to doctors. By 1915, it was sold over the counter.

1948 headline: An aspirin a day reduces heart attacks

It wouldn’t be until 1948 when aspirin would be used for its preventative benefits. A California doctor named Dr. Lawrence Craven started recommending an aspirin a day to reduce heart attack risk to his patients, based on what he saw. Researchers wouldn’t understand why aspirin was able to do this until several decades later.

1982 headline: Add stroke prevention to aspirin’s benefits

In 1982, the Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to researchers who discovered that aspirin inhibits the production of a hormone called prostaglandins, which are responsible for forming the clots that lead to heart attacks and strokes.

1993 headline: American Heart Association endorses aspirin

In 1993, the American Heart Association endorsed using aspirin as a preventative measure against cardiovascular risks. Four years later, they estimated as many as 10,000 American lives could be saved each year if everyone took a single 325 milligram tablet of aspirin at the first signs of a severe heart attack.

2002 headline: An aspirin a day can reduce signs of dementia

A study in Utah involving 3,000 people who showed early signs of Alzheimer’s or were likely candidates for dementia and who regularly took anti-inflammatory meds like aspirin, showed a 45% risk reduction for developing the disease. This was only after taking it for more than two years.

2010 headline: An aspirin a day can reduce cancer risk

A large analysis from 2010 found that daily aspirin use could lower cancer risks by at least 20% over 20 years. The largest decrease in risk was for gastrointestinal cancers.

2015 headline: Aspirin good for some cancers but not all hearts

While aspirin may be a great painkiller, the verdict is still out on some of its other benefits.

The decades long push to use aspirin to prevent heart attacks came to an end in May of this year, when the Food and Drug Administration warned against anyone using aspirin as a preventative measure. Instead it said daily use should only be limited to those who already suffer from cardiovascular disease.

And the verdict is still out on cancer, even though aspirin seems to have particular benefits for digestive cancers. A new study in this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine backs that up – finding that daily low-dosage usage for five or more years was associated with a 27% less likelihood of having colorectal cancer.

Eric Jacobs, an epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society said the strongest benefit appears to be for digestive track cancers. “The evidence is fairly strong for esophageal and stomach cancer. But for other cancers, like breast and lung, there are hints but the data is still inconsistent.”

Elizabeth Landau