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Aspirin therapy for heart health: What you should know

» What can aspirin do?

» Who should take aspirin?

What is aspirin?

Used for years to treat headaches, fever, swollen joints and other aches and pains, aspirin, or acetylsalicylic acid, belongs to a group of pain relievers called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) along with ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and naproxen sodium (Aleve). Aspirin is unique, however, in how it affects the blood, reducing the platelets’ ability to clump together or clot.

Not for you?

Only your doctor can tell you if the benefits of aspirin outweigh the risks. Check with him or her before taking aspirin, especially if you have:

  • a history of peptic ulcer, liver or kidney disease
  • gastrointestinal bleeding
  • a bleeding disorder
  • high blood pressure

Never stop taking prescribed aspirin therapy unless directed by your doctor.

Can an aspirin a day keep the cardiologist away? While it’s true that the century-old pain reliever may help prevent heart attack and stroke in some people, taking daily aspirin is not without risk. Here’s what you need to know about daily aspirin therapy.

What can aspirin do?

By reducing the clotting action of your blood, aspirin lowers the potential for blockages in your arteries and helps your heart maintain good blood flow. Because of this, doctors often prescribe daily aspirin therapy to prevent cardiovascular conditions including heart attack, stroke and mini-stroke, also known as a transient ischemic attack (TIA). Other research suggests aspirin may help protect against some cancers, but the evidence isn’t yet strong enough to recommend aspirin for cancer prevention.

A daily regimen of aspirin therapy should only be followed on your doctor’s advice since aspirin can produce unwanted side effects. It can irritate the stomach, causing pain, nausea, heartburn or ulcers—side effects more likely to occur if you drink alcohol or have a history of ulcers. Aspirin can also react poorly with other prescription and over-the-counter medications, vitamins and herbal and dietary supplements. In addition, some people are allergic to aspirin.

For some people at low risk for heart disease, daily aspirin may do more harm than good. Serious side effects include stomach bleeding, bleeding in the brain and kidney failure. What’s more, some research suggests the anticlotting effects may wane over time and patients may develop resistance to it. You’ll need to follow up regularly with your doctor while on aspirin to ensure it is actually working for you.

Who should take aspirin?

The American Heart Association recommends daily aspirin use for most people who have had a heart attack, unstable angina, an ischemic stroke (caused by a blood clot) or a TIA because it may help prevent a second event. If you never suffered a heart attack or stroke but are considered at high risk, aspirin may help you reduce your risk for an attack by as much as 25 percent.

Ask your doctor about aspirin therapy if you are a man over age 40 or a postmenopausal woman, even with no other risk factors; you have heart or blood vessel disease; you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes; or you smoke. Your doctor will evaluate your overall risk for cardiovascular disease, including family history and personal fitness level against your risk for side effects from aspirin therapy.

Studies show that the best dose is between 80 milligrams (mg) and 325 mg. daily. Only your doctor can determine the right level for you. People who use aspirin regularly should avoid alcohol and take special precautions if they need dental or surgical procedures or take other medications.

© 2014 Dowden Health Media