Aspirin is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), a class of drugs that reduces fever and relieve aches and pains. In low doses, aspirin is often prescribed to seniors to help prevent blood clots.
Aspirin reduces your chance of heart attack and stroke by interfering with your platelets’ clotting action. It also has a host of other benefits for older adults. However, there are risks associated with regular aspirin intake as well. If your doctor recommends you take low-dose aspirin daily, make sure you understand whether the benefits outweigh the risks.
Here’s what you need to know about the pros and cons of aspirin therapy:
The main benefit of aspirin is, as mentioned, preventing blood clots. This reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes, since blood clots are one of the main triggers of both. Taking daily aspirin also increases your chance of surviving a heart attack or stroke.
How it works: your blood contains cells called platelets that build up at the site of a wound and cause the blood to clot. This prevents you from bleeding out from a small cut or wound. Sometimes, the platelets get to work inside the blood vessels that lead to your heart or brain. People with atherosclerosis—narrowed arteries due to the buildup of fatty deposits—are at higher risk for blood clots, because when one of those fatty deposits bursts, platelets rush to the surface and start forming a clot. This partially or completely blocks the affected artery, reducing blood flow. Less blood supply in the heart causes a heart attack, and reduced supply to the brain causes a stroke.
Aspirin therapy stops that clotting action, reducing the chance of a blood clot forming in your arteries. It’s especially beneficial for people who have already had a heart attack or stroke. It’s also good for anyone who carries a high risk of heart attack or has coronary artery disease.
Aspirin is also part of first aid in a heart attack. After calling 911, chew and swallow a 325-mg tablet of aspirin, unless your doctor told you never to take aspirin.
Besides for the heart benefits, newer research suggests aspirin may reduce the risk of cancers in the digestive system — the esophagus, stomach, colon, and rectum — and the prostate. In addition, studies are currently in progress to find out if aspirin helps protect against dementia.
With all the benefits to the heart a daily aspirin provides, why wouldn’t everyone take it? The answer lies in the risks and side effects of regularly taking aspirin:
- The most serious side effect of aspirin is the risk of damage to the stomach. Aspirin reduces the stomach’s protective lining. People who take daily aspirin are twice as likely to have GI bleeding or a perforated stomach ulcer. These are serious conditions that can be deadly.
- Severe bleeding is also a serious side effect. Aspirin’s blood-thinning properties—helpful for reducing the chance of blood clots—also make it more likely for intense bleeding to occur.
- There is some evidence to suggest that daily aspirin can affect kidney function.
- Another, newer, risk is from a recent study that showed that patients with heart failure and type 2 diabetes, but no history of stroke or heart attack, were 50% more likely to have a nonfatal heart attack or stroke if they took aspirin daily.
- Aspirin may cause severe allergic reactions, particularly in asthmatic patients.
- Less serious side effects include upset stomach, heartburn, drowsiness, and headache.
The bottom line
While some of the risks of aspirin are quite serious, they are also pretty rare. For patients at higher risk for stroke or heart attack—those who smoke, are overweight, or have high blood pressure—the benefits certainly seem to be greater than the risks. Those who do not carry the risk factors may want to avoid the possibility of side effects occurring.
In all cases, check with your doctor if low-dose daily aspirin is right for you.