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A is for Aspirin and All Its Attributes

by the Social Diary Health Expert Columnist Ruth S. Jacobowitz
Column #11, April 24th, 2006

The properties of simple things like aspirin continue to amaze me. Aspirin is excellent at relieving pain, reducing fever, and it’s an anti-inflammatory agent, providing some relief from swelling associated with minor injuries and arthritis. Each year, more than 40 million pounds of aspirin are consumed in the United States alone, and that rate translates into 300 aspirin tablets each year for every man, woman, and child.

Aspirin is no new kid on the block. It was discovered by Hermann Kolbe, a German chemist more than 100 years ago. Kolbe developed it as a treatment for his own father’s arthritis. But, it’s not even that recent a discovery. Actually in the 5th Century B.C. , Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, is said to have used ground willow bark to ease aches and pains and willow bark contains salicin, the basis of salicylic acid—aspirin.

Everyone I know takes a baby aspirin, 81 milligrams, each day for heart health. The news is that it may also protect us from the most common form of breast cancer. No, aspirin is not for everyone, so check this out with your physician in advance, but let’s look at what aspirin may do for many of us.

Aspirin, we’re told will protect our hearts by preventing the formation of potentially dangerous blood clots. Its ability to lower our risk of heart attack may be due its anti-inflammatory properties.

Aspirin can reduce inflammation and recent studies suggest that inflammation has a major role in developing hardening of the arteries, arteriosclerosis. This is suggested because there is a test for C-reactive protein, which is a marker for inflammation. This protein has been shown to be elevated in some patients who have sustained a heart attack or in others with unstable angina.

The American Heart Association says that if someone thinks they are having a heart attack, they should call 911 and chew an adult aspirin (325 mg.), if aspirin in not contraindicated for them for some other reason. Don’t swallow it whole. Aspirin can reduce damage to the heart during a heart attack.

Great, but, the results of a study presented to a conference of the American College of Chest Physicians demonstrated that people who suddenly stop taking aspirin have an unexpectedly high risk of serious heart problems. So if you need to stop taking aspirin, make sure you find out from your physician how to taper off rather than stopping abruptly and discuss alternatives to stopping.

Further, while we discussing the heart of the matter, some research has shown that aspirin may be helpful in protecting individuals from strokes and mini-strokes that are caused by blockages in the blood vessels of the brain. Here again, check with your doctor because in the instance of stroke, aspirin may be a two-edged sword, protecting us from clot-caused strokes, but increasing the risk of hemorrhagic, or bleeding, strokes.

The Journal of the American Medical Association reported another potential benefit of aspirin is its ability to reduce breast cancer risk by as much as 28 percent. Aspirin seems able to prevent estrogen-stimulated breast tumors, which account for about two-third of all breast cancers. This is not really surprising inasmuch as anti-inflammatory drugs have long been linked to a decreased risk of colorectal, bladder, and prostate cancer as well as others. Interesting to note, in view of this report, another very large study showed that far fewer women than men are taking aspirin daily or every other day.

So the good news is that aspirin can benefit us in many ways, lowering the risk of heart attack, stroke, and some cancers; as well as diminishing pain and reducing fever. The bad new is that aspirin can interact in deleterious ways with other medications we are taking, cause stomach upset, nausea, heartburn, or ulcers. That’s why it is so important that you discuss taking aspirin with your own physician.

* Ruth S. Jacobowitz is a health advocate, lecturer, and the author of five consumer health books and a lecturer on health matters. Her newest book is Final Acts—a novel. Visit Ruth at her web site www.ruthjacobowitz.com .

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