Aspirin: Heart disease prevention, yes, but cancer?

Aspirin: Heart disease prevention, yes, but cancer?

Though the amazing little aspirin has long been touted as a good preventive measure against heart disease, new information suggests it may have a measurable impact on reducing the risk of certain cancers. With approximately 40 thousand tons of aspirin consumed annually around the globe, what should you know about these developments and what questions should you ask your physician?

Let’s start with the nature of aspirin. According to the Aspirin Foundation, “The active ingredient in aspirin, acetyl salicylic acid, is a synthetic derivative of a compound, salicin, which occurs naturally in plants, notably the willow tree. Extracts of willow were traditionally used in folk medicine and, as early as 400 BC, the Greek physician Hippocrates recommended a brew made from willow leaves to treat labour pains. Later in 1763 an English clergyman, Reverend Edward Stone carried out the first proper scientific study of the herbal medicine when he described the benefits he observed after giving ground up willow bark to 50 parishioners suffering from rheumatic fever.”

Though a timeline of aspirin’s roots begins in 3000 BC, it was in 1897 that a chemist synthesized the active ingredient for the Bayer pharmaceutical company making easily digestible and available for consumers. What would not be known for another several decades was how and why it worked as an anti-inflammatory when treating aches, pains and the dreaded symptoms of the hangover. In 1982, the work of British professor John Vane to understand the chemistry of aspirin earned him the Nobel Prize for medicine.

Besides easing inflammation, it also appears to minimize blood clotting. For those with diabetes or other blood diseases, data suggests this low-cost drug can help patients avoid strokes and heart attacks.

Scientists also are very interested in the impact aspirin could have on some forms of dementia based on the medicine’s promotion of blood circulation to the brain.

So what about reducing the risk of cancer?

According to WebMD, “Taking aspirin every day appears to reduce the odds of developing and dying from colon, stomach or esophageal cancer, a new study suggests.” Studies have shown that regular use of aspirin has a measurable correlation with preventing colon cancer. Researchers think that aspirin may reduce the formation of polyps in the colon, often the early sites of colon cancer growths.

One leading researcher, Professor Jack Cuzick the center for cancer prevention at Queen Mary University in London, also believes that the measurable benefits of an aspirin regimen aren’t realized for five to ten years. This researcher sees those between 50 and 65 years of age as the prime audience for daily doses. He concludes that taking aspirin “looks to be the most important thing we can do to reduce cancer after stopping smoking and reducing obesity, and will probably be much easier to implement”.

Is there are downside to taking aspirin on such a frequent basis? Most all references warn that regular use can cause internal bleeding. An article on the American Cancer Society’s web site states that no public health organization recommends daily dosing simply to reduce the risk of cancer. Cuzick, on the other hand, concludes that the benefits outweighed the risks, Cuzick’s team, writing in the cancer journal Annals of Oncology, said that by taking low-dose aspirin every day for 10 years, bowel cancer cases could be cut by about 35% and deaths by 40%. Aspirin could reduce rates of esophageal and stomach cancers by 30% and deaths from them by 35% to 50%.

As usual, messing around with your health without enough information can result in unintended consequences. If you want to explore the use of aspirin as a preventive measure, a discussion with your health care provider is the first best step.

As insurance agents and employee benefit brokers, we simply hope that medicine continues to evolve along these lines so that we can all live long healthy lives with lower insurance premiums.

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