For years, research has shown that aspirin is beneficial in preventing heart attacks. Now new studies support its ability to prevent cancer as well. Considering that cardiovascular disease and cancer are the two leading causes of death in the US, aspirin is the cheapest preventative medicine around…well, besides water.
The three UK studies were recently reported in The Lancet and The Lancet Oncology (the articles are unfortunately behind paywalls, but you can read the abstracts here, here and here). The studies, involving tens of thousands of participants, show reductions of cancer incidence (both short- and long-term) and mortality rate as well as a decrease in metastatic cancer. It still is not known exactly how aspirin and cancer are connected, although aspirin’s mechanism of action suggests that cancer is a kind of inflammation in the body. Because of the highly vascular nature of tumors and the bleeding that can occur, cancer increases blood clots, so aspirin’s added ability as an anti-platelet agent may also be behind the incidence reduction.
The health benefits of aspirin for prevention of cancer, and cardiovascular disease for that matter, are nothing new.
First commercially produced by Bayer in 1899, aspirin was dubbed the “wonder drug” for all of its perceived health benefits, including pain relief. In 1974, researchers from Cardiff University were among the first to investigate the spectrum of its beneficial effects and declare it as an essential component to preserve health, on level with diet and exercise. The advantages of aspirin continued to be researched as did the media reports whenever a new study supported its wonder drug moniker. In fact, it was only 4 months ago that a study out of Oxford University, again published in The Lancet (abstract only here), showed that aspirin reduced the risk of colorectal cancer.
But aspirin is not without its problems. It can be hard on the stomach lining as it is chemically an acid. But aspirin has also been implicated in upper gastrointestinal bleeding in a wide range of studies. However, the consensus on all the research seems to be the preventative benefits to health outweigh the bleeding risks, so the advice to people between the ages of 45-50 is that they should consider taking low-dose aspirin and do so for 25 years or so. It’s hard to argue with this either. Aspirin is incredibly inexpensive and supported by volumes of scientific research, unlike supplements or alternative medicines which can be costly and have marginal scientific basis.
Studies on aspirin will continue and likely show more benefit, grabbing everyone’s attention every 3-4 months. but for good reason. Americans currently consume 10,000 tons of aspirin each year, but that number was 16,000 tons in 1995, likely due to the competition from alternative pain relievers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Clearly, as the costs of healthcare continue to climb and the population ages, preventative medicine is the future and in the best interest of everyone. Being reminded every few months that as people grow older, a very simple solution is probably already sitting in their medicine cabinet will never get overplayed. Perhaps greater demand will spur more research into ways to minimize aspirin’s negative effects, such as acid blockers that can reduce the risk of GI bleeding.
For all the money spent on studies of aspirin, perhaps all the evidence anyone needs of its health benefits is the life of Walter Breuning, who lived to be 114 years old and aspirin was the only medication he ever took.
Check out the PBS Newshour summary of the research and subsequent discussion and controversy: