About 3,500 years ago, dried myrtle leaves were used to ease rheumatic pains. In the fifth century B.C., Hippocrates used willow bark to stop aches and pains and reduce fever. In 30 A.D., an extract of willow leaves was used to treat inflammation.
These substances, all of which contained salicin, made our ancestors feel better. Word spread down through the generations until it reached us as … aspirin.
Today, Americans take billions of aspirin tablets a year for many of the same reasons our ancestors did—pain, fever and inflammation. But now, aspirin is receiving attention for another benefit: its role in preventing cardiovascular disease.
Oddly enough, it was an unwanted side effect of aspirin—its ability to inhibit blood clotting—that led researchers to look into its effect on heart disease. In a 1979 study, two groups of monkeys were fed a diet conducive to heart disease, but one group was given aspirin, while the other was not. The result? The group that did not take aspirin developed more coronary artery disease.
With this dramatic result in hand, researchers began large-scale studies in humans. Here’s what we now know:
Aspirin is helpful in preventing heart attacks. How much is needed? Recent studies suggest that low doses of aspirin (usually 75 or 81 milligrams a day) work as well as higher doses to prevent heart attack. This is an important finding because low doses are not as likely to cause gastrointestinal bleeding.
Aspirin also helps following bypass surgery. Taking up to 325 mg every day afterwards enhances blood flow through the bypass graft. But taking aspirin before surgery is not advisable because it increases blood loss during an operation.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends daily aspirin therapy be considered for anyone who’s had a heart attack or unstable angina, a stroke caused by a blood clot or who has certain cardiovascular risk factors. Women ages 65 and older may benefit from daily aspirin even if they have no other risk factors. Because aspirin can have negative effects in people with certain medical conditions, the AHA makes these recommendations:
- Do not decide to take aspirin until you’ve spoken to your doctor.
- Find out which cardiovascular risk factors you have and then work hard to reduce them. Taking aspirin won’t correct high cholesterol.
- Mention to your doctor all other medications you’re taking. These can affect whether you take aspirin and how much.
- If your doctor recommends aspirin, make sure you understand all the potential side effects.
- Aspirin can prolong bleeding. So if you’re scheduled for surgery—even minor surgery—be sure to review your use of aspirin with your doctor.