Sandra Rose, a nurse in Raleigh, NC, started taking a daily aspirin because "it seemed like a wonder drug," preventing heart attacks and strokes. "All the patients seemed to be on a low-dose aspirin," 63-year-old Rose says. She started taking one herself.
Then, after hearing reports of stomach bleeding caused by aspirin, this wonder drug had Rose wondering: How can you tell if a daily aspirin is right for you?
Heart attacks and strokes cause almost a million deaths every year in the U.S. The culprits are blood clots, which choke off the blood supply to vital organs. Aspirin works on blood cells that cause clots (platelets), making blood less likely to clot.
So if clots cause cardiovascular disease, and aspirin helps prevents clots, taking aspirin should be a no-brainer, right?
Not so fast. Aspirin's benefit comes at a cost -- an increased risk of bleeding, which usually occurs in the stomach, intestine and other gastrointestinal areas. While most of this type of bleeding is minor and stops on its own, it can be life-threatening. And there's no sure way to predict if or when it will happen.
"No medicine is innocuous," says Terry Jacobson, MD, director of the Office of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at Emory University in Atlanta. "Anyone who's not at a high risk of heart disease has to weigh the benefits against the risks."
The right time to take aspirin is when the benefits -- reducing risk from heart attacks and strokes -- outweigh the risk of aspirin itself: dangerous stomach bleeding. This is a decision that can only be made between you and your doctor, but learning your own risk level can help you feel good about your choice.
Your Heart Disease Risk and Aspirin Therapy
There's little question aspirin has earned its reputation as a powerful drug. Studies comparing aspirin with placebo including almost 100,000 apparently healthy men and women showed:
In men, daily aspirin therapy cut the risk of a first heart attack by a third.
In women, daily aspirin therapy reduced the rate of strokes by 17%.