You’ve probably seen pharmaceutical ads touting aspirin as a “wonder drug” when it comes to preventing heart attacks and stroke. But should you be taking it daily to fend off cardiovascular disease? Here are answers to some common questions about aspirin and your heart.
How does aspirin prevent heart attacks?
Aspirin is a blood thinner, which can prevent blood cells — called platelets — from clumping together to form clots, possibly reducing the risk of stroke or heart attack.
Blood flows through arteries and veins delivering oxygen throughout the body. When you get a cut or other injury, platelets clump together to form a clot at the site of the injury to stop bleeding. This is healthy and normal.
However, platelets can also form within blood vessels, potentially blocking blood flow. For instance, if arteries have plaque or cholesterol buildup, these fatty deposits can burst, which can trigger your blood to begin clotting. The clots can block blood flow to vital organs, such as the heart and brain, leading to heart attack or stroke.
Can I take aspirin to prevent cardiovascular disease?
There are various recommendations on who would benefit from aspirin. For instance, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that for those who have survived a heart attack or stroke, or are at high risk for other cardiovascular events, aspirin may be helpful in preventing another episode. However, they do not recommend aspirin for people who have never had a heart attack or stroke.
“Aspirin has serious risks, such as stomach bleeding and brain and kidney failure,” says Dr. Behzad Taghizadeh, a cardiovascular disease specialist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “For people with overall good health, the risks of aspirin may outweigh the benefits.”
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), a national panel of independent health experts, offers additional guidance.
According to the USPSTF, those who may benefit most from aspirin are adults who:
- Are 50 to 59 years old
- Are likely to live at least another decade
- Have a 10 percent or greater risk of having a heart attack or stroke in a 10-year period
- Are not at increased risk for bleeding
For adults ages 60 to 69 years old, whether to take aspirin depends on their individual health circumstances. The panel does not recommend aspirin for people younger than 50 years or older than 70.
“Regardless of age, it’s important to talk with your doctor if you are thinking of taking aspirin, because each person’s medical history is unique,” says Dr. Taghizadeh. “Some patients may be allergic to aspirin or have conditions that could increase their risk of bleeding if they take it. Don’t take aspirin, or any other medication, without first checking with your doctor.”
How much aspirin should I take?
Your doctor will help you determine the right dose. He or she may prescribe anywhere from a low-dose aspirin (81 milligrams) to a regular-strength tablet (325 milligrams). When taking aspirin, it’s important to be aware of potentially dangerous interactions with other medicines, supplements and even certain foods and beverages.
For instance, do not take aspirin with other medicines or dietary supplements known to thin blood. Also, taking aspirin with alcohol or medicines containing aspirin, such as certain cough and sinus medications, can increase side effects, such as bleeding.
“Whether or not aspirin will benefit your heart health, the best form of cardiovascular disease prevention is a healthy lifestyle,” says Dr. Taghizadeh. “Not smoking; eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and exercising daily may not only help stave off heart disease, but other ailments as well.”