Does a Daily Aspirin Prevent Heart Attacks?
We all want to lower our risk for heart disease, and taking a daily aspirin sounds like an easy fix. But will it really help? The answer is yes – and no.
Research shows that aspirin reduces inflammation, prevents blood clots and lowers the risk of death among people suffering from a heart attack. Yet, while aspirin is generally safe for an occasional headache or muscle strain, popping it daily comes with serious risks of its own, including internal bleeding.
Before you self-prescribe daily aspirin for heart attack prevention, consider these facts:
- If you’ve had a heart attack or stroke, aspirin could be lifesaving. Your doctor is likely to recommend daily aspirin if you’ve already had a heart attack or stroke, unless you have a history of serious bleeding. After a heart attack or stroke, daily aspirin can help reduce the chance that blood clots will form inside diseased arteries. It can also minimize heart damage during a heart attack and prevent the occurrence of future events.
- Aspirin hasn’t been approved by the FDA for primary prevention. Doctors have long prescribed aspirin to patients with no history of heart disease to prevent a future event. The latest research, however, suggests that aspirin won’t reduce the risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke if you’re not at significant risk. In fact, the risk of taking a daily aspirin may outweigh the potential benefits.
- Even low-dose aspirin can have serious side effects. Aspirin prevents blood clots by thinning the blood. So it makes sense that taking a daily aspirin increases the risk of internal bleeding—usually in the stomach and small intestines. A North American Menopause Society study found that women who took aspirin were 40 percent more likely to experience bleeding that required transfusion.
- Statins are safer than aspirin for primary prevention. If you’re concerned about your heart disease risk, ask your doctor about statins. Studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association report that statins reduce cholesterol levels in the blood and can lower the risk of heart attack, stroke and even death from heart disease by up to 20 or 30 percent. At an office visit, your doctor can assess whether or not taking a statin is your best bet.
- Age matters. Aspirin can reduce the risk of stroke by almost 17 percent for women over 65. Unfortunately, studies consistently show that aspirin provides little or no cardiovascular protection for younger women—who also have an increased risk of bleeding.
- Gender makes a difference. Unlike for men, there is no data showing that daily aspirin use is effective at preventing heart attacks in women of any age—unless they have had a prior heart attack.
- Aspirin combined with other medication can be dangerous. Like aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve) and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) thin the blood and reduce clotting. If taken with aspirin, the two can dramatically increase your risk of internal bleeding. Also, taking an NSAID before you take your aspirin may render the aspirin inactive in your bloodstream and minimize the desired effects for prevention of heart attack or stroke. Warfarin (Coumadin), corticosteroids and some antidepressants also increase your risk of bleeding.
The bottom line
Healthy lifestyle changes are more effective at preventing a first heart attack or stroke than aspirin. If you smoke, make a plan to quit. If you’re stressed, use relaxation techniques. If you’re inactive, get moving. And if you eat junk, clean up your diet. Together, these strategies can dramatically reduce your risk of heart disease. If you still need medication, statins may be safer. In any case, don’t self-prescribe aspirin without an evaluation from your doctor.
Do you take daily aspirin to prevent heart disease? Was it prescribed by your doctor? What other preventive measures are you taking? Share in the comments below.