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Aspirin and prevention-who knows best?

Ami Banerjee
Last edited 30th March 2012

As the UK descends into hysteria around petrol and pasties, I have been reflecting for the last week on Peter Rothwell’s recent Lancet papers about cancer prevention and the role of aspirin. Basically, daily low-dose aspirin not only prevents development of new cancer, but also the spread of cancer. Aspirin is one of the oldest drugs in the drug cabinet of hospital wards and GP surgeries, but we continue to discover more about its roles in medicine. As new evidence appears on the horizon, the information and guidelines for practising doctors and their patients still continues to change. There are inevitably time delays in how quickly new information filters through healthcare settings and broader society, and how it is interpreted by both the patient and the doctor.

Aspirin has several different uses which are proven by large bodies of evidence, including as a painkiller, prevention of cardiovascular disease in people at risk (primary prevention) and people with known cardiovascular disease (secondary prevention) and now for prevention of cancer. I always love to refer back to the Hippocratic Oath, and so we have to weigh aspirin’s harms with these many benefits. The main harm with aspirin is bleeding, particularly people who have a tendency towards bleeding anyway, e.g. individuals with history of gastric ulcers.

Interestingly, as the new data is emerging about the long-term preventive effects on cancer, the use of aspirin for two other indications is in decline due to evidence of not that much good when weighed against the risk of bleeding. First, most doctors do not recommend low-dose aspirin for primary prevention of cardiovascular disease, largely due to available data from meta-analyses showing that it does not change mortality in diabetics or non-diabetics. Second, in patients with atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm problem which increases risk of stroke, aspirin is no longer recommended, yet most guidelinesaround the world still include it. So while we can recommend aspirin for long-term cancer prevention, we may not be able to recommend it in healthy individuals for long-term stroke prevention.

Evidence-based medicine is following a moving target of diseases and treatments and so the evidence is also always changing, even for drugs as old as aspirin. So for newer drugs, you can begin to imagine how little we know. The challenge is to keep all people, both doctors and patients up-to-date with all available evidence and guidelines. However, we know that this is difficult, given that both doctors do not always follow guidelines and people do not generally like to take tablets. Notably, most news reports covering the “aspirin and cancer” story advised people to go and see their doctor before starting the drug. Fergus Walsh, of the BBC, quoted a notable academic, “Doctors were good at treating disease, but when it came to preventing ill-health then people had to make their own judgements”. I agree. I wonder whether people have as much chance of making the “right decision” themselves. And before you ask, I do not take an aspirin a day yet, but I did start cycling to work again this week. One preventive step at a time.

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