Ward Off Cancer With Low-Dose Aspirin
Julian Whitaker, MD
If you’re looking for a wonder drug, look no further than aspirin. This inexpensive over-the-counter medication reduces fever, eases aches and pains, and lowers systemic inflammation. It helps prevent heart attacks and strokes and, if taken during a heart attack, just might save your life. Now, a new study demonstrates yet another, extremely important benefit of this tried-and-true therapy: Aspirin also reduces risk of death from cancer.
Slashes Risk of Cancer Death
In a study published in December 2010 in The Lancet, Oxford University researchers analyzed data on more than 25,000 patients involved in eight randomized, placebo-controlled trials that evaluated the effects of daily aspirin. Although the original studies examined aspirin’s effects on heart attack and stroke, the Oxford team looked at the participants’ medical records and zeroed in on cancer deaths—both during the trials, which lasted four to seven years, and for a total of 20 years afterward.
They found that regular use of aspirin reduced the risk of death from cancer by an average of 20 percent during the clinical trials. There was a delayed effect. The bulk of the benefits emerged only after five years of daily aspirin use, and at that point, there was a 34 percent reduction in cancer mortality. Earlier research has shown aspirin’s protective effects in colorectal cancer. This study, however, demonstrated that it also decreased death from cancer of the pancreas, brain, stomach, and prostate as well as adenocarcinomas of the esophagus and lung.
Equally important, long-term follow-up revealed aspirin’s protective effects were enduring. After 20 years, study participants who had taken aspirin had a significantly lower risk of death from cancer of the esophagus (60 percent lower), bowel (40 percent), lung (30 percent), and prostate (18 percent, although this didn’t reach statistical significance).
Let me make it clear that these folks didn’t necessarily take aspirin for 20 years. Some likely continued it after the clinical trials were completed and some didn’t. But one trend clearly emerged: The longer the trial—and thus the duration of aspirin use—the greater the protection.
The 4-Cent Miracle Drug
I hope you grasp the significance of this study. As the authors state, there’s been little progress in the use of drugs in cancer prevention. And as I’ve reported, routine screening with PSA testing and mammograms hasn’t reduced cancer death rates. Yet, all the while, a true cancer deterrent has been hiding out in our medicine cabinets.
The dose of aspirin shown to be effective in this study was low—75 mg per day performed as well as higher doses. You can buy a bottle of Bayer low-dose aspirin (81 mg) for a measly $.04 per tablet. And its benefits extend well beyond cancer.
Aspirin prevents platelets from clumping together, which reduces the formation of blood clots that could potentially lodge in a vessel in the heart or brain. Therefore, it reduces risk of heart disease and prevents first and second heart attacks in men and women as well as strokes in women. And everyone needs to know that chewing a full-strength aspirin (325 mg) at the first sign of a heart attack has been shown to save lives. Furthermore, this medication’s anti-inflammatory properties, which are key to its pain-relieving prowess, may help stave off other inflammatory disorders as well.
Benefits Far Outweigh Risks
Low-dose aspirin (75–81 mg) is very safe. Label instructions for regular aspirin (325 mg) cap daily intake at 12 tablets, or 3,900 mg—48–52 times higher than what I’m recommending!
That said, you should be aware that aspirin does increase risk of ulceration and bleeding in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. But this problem usually occurs only when larger doses are taken for prolonged periods, which is why I don’t recommend long-term use of aspirin or other NSAIDs for pain control. It also raises risk of hemorrhagic stroke—again, most often when taken in higher doses—and should be avoided by anyone who has a bleeding disorder. Other precautions include aspirin sensitivities or allergies, concurrent use of a handful of other medications (primarily blood thinners), and, in children, viral illnesses (it’s associated with Reye’s syndrome).
As for some of the other wild assertions floating around about aspirin, they’re just plain silly. I’ve been asked if it’s true that aspirin causes macular degeneration and blindness! No, it doesn’t. Harvard researchers published a 10-year randomized clinical trial involving nearly 40,000 women which found that aspirin had no effects on risk of age-related macular degeneration.
Some docs who practice the kind of medicine I do eschew any and all drugs, aspirin included. But I’ve always been a proponent of low-dose aspirin, and with the release of this study, my enthusiasm has increased exponentially. Most healthy people tolerate low-dose “baby aspirin” (81 mg) just fine, and its benefits—reduced risk of cancer, heart attack, and stroke—far outweigh its risks. In fact, it’s a miracle drug!
- The recommended dose for cancer protection is 75 mg per day, but 81 mg tablets, sold in drugstores everywhere, are perfectly acceptable. Make sure you take it daily. Previous studies have failed to demonstrate protection with alternate-day aspirin. This is a very low and generally safe dose. Aspirin in larger doses (but not necessarily low-dose) is associated with increased risk of bleeding and GI ulceration. It should not be taken by anyone with an aspirin allergy or sensitivity. Talk to your doctor if you’re taking medications that may increase risk of bleeding, such as warfarin, heparin, ibuprofen, and corticosteroids.
- Christen WG, et al. Low-dose aspirin and medical record-confirmed age-related macular degeneration in a randomized trial of women. Ophthalmology. 2009 Dec;116(12):2386–2392.
- Rothwell PM, et al. Effect of daily aspirin on long-term risk of death due to cancer: analysis of individual patient data from randomised trials. Lancet. 2010 Dec 7. Epub ahead of print.
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