Can Using Aspirin Regularly Keep Your Heart Healthy?
It seems every day a new study contradicts the last – and all the while, your heart could be at risk. Mediclinic experts get to the bottom of this debate.
The idea that aspirin can help prevent a heart attack if taken regularly has been in the news for years, with competing headlines alternating between singing the praises of this tactic or warning against it.
Every hour in South Africa, five people have heart attacks – while another 10 will have strokes, according to research from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of SA.
Can an aspirin a day help reduce your risk? Before we dive into the merits of daily aspirin therapy as a heart-health strategy, let’s take a closer look at how your body works. Whenever you bleed, clotting cells called platelets build up around the area to seal the wound – this helps prevent your blood vessel from bleeding further.
But if your blood vessels are narrowed due to a build-up of fatty deposits, such as cholesterol, this can lead to bleeding inside the vessels themselves. In that case, platelets will rush to the site to form a clot to stop the bleeding, inflaming the area and blocking the artery in the process. That interrupts normal blood flow.
A clot that cuts off blood flow to the heart can cause a heart attack, while one that blocks blood from travelling to the brain can cause a stroke.
How aspirin works
How can aspirin help? Well, aspirin is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) often used to treat pain and fever. It restricts your body’s inflammatory response by blocking an enzyme, cyclooxygenase, and can interfere with the chemicals that stimulate the body’s natural blood-clotting response, says Melody Dreyer, a ward pharmacist at Mediclinic Bloemfontein.
“Usually, aspirin can be used to limit inflammation, reduce fever and to relieve mild to moderate pain, such as headaches, sprains and strains, toothaches, and menstrual pain,” she says. “And in low doses, it may be prescribed to thin the blood.”
Who should take aspirin daily?
Aspirin is not a one-size-fits-all approach to improved heart health.
On the one hand, its effects are proven in many cases. “Aspirin in pharmacological doses can reduce the incidence of cardiac arrest in those with a high risk of heart attack,” says Dr Ighsaan Carr, a Mediclinic Cape Town and Constantiaberg physician. “Daily intake of low-dose aspirin can help prevent strokes.”
However, research also shows daily aspirin therapy is not for everyone. “People who are at risk of developing deep vein thrombosis, for example, should avoid aspirin and other NSAIDs, such as Ibuprofen, as these anti-clotting drugs can increase the risk of bleeding,” says Dr Kris Michalowski, a vascular surgeon at Mediclinic Milnerton.
“Aspirin should also be avoided in the last trimester of pregnancy, in people over 65 years old who are already on another blood-thinning agent, and in children under 16,” warns Dreyer.
The bottom line: your doctor may prescribe an aspirin a day if you need it, depending on certain factors in your health history.
Do you feel you may benefit from daily aspirin therapy? Speak to your doctor about whether these risks outweigh the benefits in your specific case. Your doctor will need to conduct a thorough examination of your medical history in order to advise you on the best or most appropriate course of action.