A is for Aspirin

You probably recently read in the news something about aspirin recently, and maybe you’re wondering if you should stop taking it, or you went ahead and already did. I know lots of my patients have been asking me.

The article by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force talks about the use of aspirin to prevent heart attacks and strokes. They said for primary prevention (meaning to prevent a first heart attack) they recommended shared (between patient and their doctor/provider) decision making for starting aspirin in 40 to 59-years-olds with a 10% or greater risk of having a major heart event (such as a heart attack) in the next 10 years who do not have increased bleeding risk. They recommended not starting aspirin in those 60 and older who have less than a 20% risk.

There are a number of key points.

  • This is a draft recommendation. There is a public comment period and changes will be made before it’s finally published, probably in 6 or more months.
  • The recommendations only apply to starting aspirin.
  • The recommendations do not apply to people who have previously had a heart attack or stroke.
  • They make no recommendations about stopping aspirin other than considering stopping at 75 years old for primary prevention.

For patients who have had a heart attack, stroke, or peripheral artery disease (blocked artery to one’s arms or legs), the benefits of aspirin generally outweigh the risk of bleeding.

The decision to use any medication is always a balance of the benefits versus the risks (and sometimes the cost). Why the change in recommendations? Well in part we generally get progressively better as we accumulate more scientific information. But probably in this case it’s more due to treatment changes. When the original recommendations came out to use aspirin for primary prevention we did not have very good treatment for the conditions that cause heart disease, particularly cholesterol. With improved treatment, there is less incremental benefit from aspirin, yet the bleeding risk remains. That may shift who we should treat.

For now, I’m not recommending any changes before the final recommendations come out. Aspirin was first recommended for primary prevention over a century ago! If taking aspirin was that risky we’d have known there was a problem long ago. I don’t think there is any reason to make any rushed decisions unless someone is having a problem with aspirin.

So you if you are already on aspirin and doing fine on it, and your next appointment to see your doctor will be within 9 months or so, I suggest considering not even asking your doctor until your next appointment. That gives time for the final report to be published, and time for your doctor to consider the information. That’s better than making a decision based on a headline.

Author: Daniel Ginsberg, MD, FACP

I'm an internal medicine physician and have avidly applied computers to medicine since 1986, when I wrote my first medically oriented computer programs. So yes, that means I'm at least 35-years-old!

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