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April 9th, 2009
10:19 AM ET

Who should take a daily aspirin?

As a new feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

Asked by Sharon, Mays Landing, New Jersey

“My husband’s doctor told him to take an aspirin a day. Should I be taking one too?”

Answer:

Thanks for the question Sharon. Aspirin is a medication we often get questions about, probably because an estimated one-third of Americans take it every day. The popular pain reliever is easily accessible, inexpensive, and available at your local pharmacy. It is commonly used to treat arthritis, headaches and fever among other minor pains. But what is often confusing is whether taking it every day can help prevent ailments– a heart attack or stroke.

Most daily users were most likely prescribed aspirin to lower their risk of cardiovascular disease. But it is important to note that not all people will benefit from this treatment, and in some cases, it can be dangerous.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is a group of independent health experts who review effectiveness and offer usage guidelines for medical treatments and drugs. Last month, the USPSTF updated its 2002 recommendations of who could benefit from a daily aspirin regime.

Men aged 45 to 79, and women aged 55 to 79 who are at high risk of heart attack may benefit from a daily aspirin as a prevention tool. The USPSTF concluded that aspirin is most effective in this group of men to prevent heart attack and for women to prevent stroke.

Being overweight, having high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking cigarettes are all factors that put you at high risk for heart attack. The group added that even if you fit this age and risk factor category, aspirin is not recommended if you have a history of gastrointestinal bleeding.

Women under the age of 55, or men under the age of 45 who have never had a stroke or heart attack should not take daily dose of aspirin as a preventive measure. Additionally, USPSTF did not find a clear benefit or risk of a daily aspirin in adults over the age of 80.

Aspirin works by suppressing your body’s natural production of substances and blood cells that can cause swelling, pain and blood clots. It’s a type of drug known as salicylate. It is critical to discuss the risks with your doctor before beginning an aspirin regime. It can be dangerous for people with a history of ulcers and GI bleeds among others ailments. It can also interfere with certain prescription and over-the-counter drugs, so disclose to your doctor what meds you take.

The FDA warns that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take aspirin (unless specifically prescribed by a doctor). Up to 8 percent of each aspirin dose can be transferred to the baby and may cause birth defects or complications with pregnancy.

So Sharon – you can see there is no clear answer to your question because many variables come into play. You and your husband can be the same age but have different health histories and risk factors that would impact the effectiveness of a daily dose of aspirin. Talk to your doctor, who can determine the potential risk vs. benefit specific to your health history.

One thing I know for sure is if you're concerned about your risk of heart disease, eating a balanced diet and 45 minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise a day is one of the best “medicines.”


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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

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