Aspirin is one of the oldest known medicines, first used by the ancient Greeks, who used a naturally occurring form of it to treat pain and fever. But the latest modern-day scientific research is also finding that standby headache remedy is proving to be something of a wonder drug that can help prevent heart attacks and even certain types of cancer.
The latest research has found that taking a low-dose aspirin for more than 10 years may lower the risk of developing pancreatic cancer by up to 60 percent. The study, by Yale University researchers, also found that even taking a daily aspirin for just three years lowered the chances of developing the deadly cancer by nearly half.
Nieca Goldberg, M.D., a cardiologist with New York University Langone Medical Center, called the new findings “exciting” and tells Newsmax Health they add to mounting evidence that the anti-inflammatory properties of the drug not only help prevent heart disease, but may ward off cancer, as well.
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“We always thought it was a life-saving drug because it prevents heart attacks,” explains Dr. Goldberg, in an interview on Newsmax TV’s Meet the Doctors program. “And heart attacks are the leading killer of men and women in our country. In fact the first thing we do when someone is having a heart attack is we have them chew an aspirin because heart attacks are caused by blood clots and aspirin stops blood clots in their tracks and saves heart muscle when you come into the hospital.”
Dr. Goldberg noted that it’s too early to recommend that everybody take an aspirin as a way to boost health — “not yet,” she says, explaining that more research needs to confirm the safety and effectiveness of daily aspirin use to prevent cancer.
“The study on [the] prevention of pancreatic cancer is interesting but it’s still a relatively small study, we really need to test it out to see if all people benefit from taking that aspirin to lower risk for pancreatic cancer. We’ve had other studies that have shown that aspirin can also reduce the risk for colon cancer, but we don’t routinely give people an aspiriin to reduce the risk for colon cancer.”
She adds that aspirin is not for everyone. It can cause stomach bleeding, intestinal irritation and pose a risk for folks on blood thinners.
“If you’re someone who has stomach problems it can increase bleeding in the stomach,” she explains. “If you know that you have a high tendency to bleeding and bruising you really need to talk to your doctor before you [start taking aspirin].”
But for many people, particularly those with family history of pancreatic and colorectal cancer, aspirin could well prove to be a life saver.
Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of the disease, striking more than 45,000 Americans each year, according to the National Cancer Institute. Because the pancreas lies hidden in the back of the abdomen, tumors of the organ often spread beyond the initial site before they is caught, making it difficult to diagnose early and treat. The disease has few early warning signs and eight in 10 people diagnosed with it die within a year, while about 94 percent die within 5 years, according to the American Cancer Society.
Experts recommend seeing a doctor if you experience abdominal or back pain, unexplained weight loss, digestive problems, light-colored stools, or jaundice — all potential symptoms of pancreatic cancer. This is especially important if at least two close relatives have been diagnosed with pancreatic, breast, colon, or ovarian cancer, which scientists believe may share common genetic origins.
For the Yale study, researchers analyzed the medical records of 362 people with pancreatic cancer and 690 who did not from 30 Connecticut hospitals between 2005 and 2009. All were asked if and when they began taking aspirin, how much they took, and for how long. The researchers also took into account other factors tied to pancreatic cancer, such as weight, smoking history, and a history of diabetes.
The results not only indicated those taking a daily aspirin were far less likely to develop cancer, but the earlier someone started taking aspirin, the more the risk for pancreatic cancer seemed reduced. Those who stopped taking aspirin within two years before the study saw their risk for pancreatic cancer increase threefold.
"Aspirin use has potential risks of its own, thus the risks and benefits for each person have to be evaluated based on personal characteristics," said Harvey Risch, M.D., a professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, who led the study, published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. "For the small numbers of people with strong family histories of pancreatic cancer or who otherwise have been evaluated to be at increased risk of pancreatic cancer, aspirin use could be part of a regimen designed to reduce their risk."
Aspirin has long been taken by heart patients, with many studies showing it can prevent stroke and heart attacks. The effects of aspirin-like substances have been known since the ancient Greeks noted the bark from willow trees was a potent fever fighter. Scientists have since determined willow bark contains salicin, a naturally occurring chemical cousin of acetylsalicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin.
Aspirin reduces inflammation and swelling, which is why it has long been used to treat headaches, fever, arthritis, colds, menstrual pain, toothaches and muscle soreness. But more recent health studies have found aspirin is also effective in preventing stroke, heart attack and some cancers.
A new analysis published last year of 51 studies involving more than 77,000 patients found that aspirin not only reduces a person's risk of developing colorectal cancer and other forms of the disease, but it can also help stop tumors from spreading to other parts of the body. The analysis, published in the journal The Lancet, found cancer death rates were significantly lower among people taking aspirin.
“Aspirin has a big effect on the spread of the cancer which is important as it’s the commonest reason that cancer kills people,” said Oxford University researcher Peter Rothwell, in a statement issued with the findings. “We found that after five years of taking aspirin there was a 30-40 percent reduction in deaths from cancer.”
Rothwell and colleagues, who carried out the analysis, had already linked aspirin with a lower risk of certain cancers, particularly bowel cancer. But their previous suggested people needed to take the drug for about 10 years to get any protection.
But the latest findings suggest the protective effect occurs much sooner — within three to five years — in people taking 75-300 milligrams of aspirin a day (a baby aspirin has about 81 mgs).
Researchers found nine cancer cases per 1,000 people each year among those taking aspirin, compared with 12 per 1,000 for those who did not. Over five years, aspirin reduced the risk of cancer-related death by 15 percent. And patients who stayed on aspirin for more than five years experienced a 37 percent reduction in cancer-related death.
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