Aspirin, or acetylsalicylic acid, is one of the oldest medications in use today; it is still the most commonly found substance in most medicine cabinets. Its active ingredient is found in the bark of the willow tree as well as in oil of wintergreen.
Aspirin’s best-known use is as an antiinflammatory, countering inflammations that cause body aches and pains. But recent evidence demonstrates that those little white pills have miraculous disease-preventing qualities, particularly regarding the three most dreaded geriatric diseases: cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke), cancer, and dementia.
The way aspirin reduces inflammation is by blocking an enzyme our bodies needs to make a group of compounds that promote inflammation and its symptoms. For some time many researchers have felt that chronic, long-term inflammation is an important part of a series of events that leads to many types of cancers.
Therefore, aspirin as well as other antiinflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen) have been studied in this regard, producing growing evidence that they significantly reduce the incidence of many types of cancer in laboratory animals. More importantly, recent human studies show that people who use aspirin regularly develop significantly less colorectal cancer than people who do not.
Currently, a number of large human clinical trials are underway to determine if other human cancers are inhibited by regular use of aspirin.
Aspirin already has a growing mainstream reputation for preventing platelet aggregation and clumping in our blood. A whole shelf-full of studies has shown that if people who have suffered one heart attack or stroke are given a small amount of aspirin daily, their risk of a second heart attack or stroke goes down dramatically.
For example, by the late 1980s, twenty-five human trials involving antiplatelet aggregation therapy (using mostly aspirin) had been completed in a total of about 29,000 people who had already had a heart attack or stroke. In 1988, the worldwide Antiplatelet Trialists’ Collabortion (ATC) conducted a statistical overview of all of these twenty-five research trials.
This ATC study found that those people taking aspirin or other anticlotting compounds regularly had a much lower incidence of having a second heart attack or stroke, when compared to those people who had previously had a stroke or heart attack, but were not taking antiplatelet compounds.
Now evidence convincingly shows that using aspirin to prevent a first heart attack is a good idea as well. The U.S. Physicians Health Study involved over 22,000 physicians, half of whom took one aspirin tablet every other day, the other half a placebo every other day.
The placebo part of this study was terminated after five years because analysis of the data showed that the doctors taking aspirin were having heart attacks 44 percent less frequently than those physicians who were taking the placebo. They terminated the study so that the doctors taking the placebo could start taking an aspirin every other day themselves. Several large clinical trials looking at aspirin usage and risk of heart disease and stroke are currently under way.
There is also a growing literature that suggests chronic inflammation in the brain may play a large role in both the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. For example, it’s been found in several recent studies that people using over-the-counter antiinflammatory drugs called NSAIDs (non-steroidal antiinflammatory drugs—examples are Nuprin, Aleve, Motrin, and Clinoril) and/or aspirin moderately over several years for various aches and pains had a much lower likelihood of acquiring Alzheimer’s disease than people who did not.