Harvard Women's Health Watch

Why you should always have aspirin on hand

This old standby may not be your first choice for pain relief, but it still has an important role in disease prevention and first aid.

aspirin-pills
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We have a lot to thank aspirin for. It's cheap and plentiful. It does a good job of relieving pain and bringing down fevers. It has also been shown to reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and colon cancer. It can even stop heart attacks and strokes in their tracks. In fact, if you're in your 50s or 60s, you may want to think about taking a low-dose aspirin every day.

After evaluating the results of scores of studies, in April 2016 the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended that women and men ages 50 through 69 who have a 10% risk of a heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years take 81 milligrams (mg) of aspirin daily. Under the previous recommendations—which, were different for men and women—daily low-dose aspirin was advised for women ages 60 through 79 who were at increased risk for cardiovascular events. The recommendation was revised to reflect a new method of calculating the risk of heart attack and stroke and of increased risk of bleeding in older people.

Why aspirin works

Dr. Tanya Laidlaw, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, suggests one way aspirin may work to ward off cardiovascular events: "We think that one of the reasons that taking an aspirin daily protects you is because it decreases platelet reactivity." Aspirin inhibits cyclooxygenase-1 (COX-1), an enzyme required to manufacture thromboxane—a chemical that encourages platelets to clump together to form blood clots. Heart attacks and strokes are commonly the result of clots that block blood flow in narrowed arteries of the heart or brain.

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