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An aspirin a day keeps the doctor away. February 23, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Aspirin’s not just for headaches anymore. Gals, guys, and folks of all ages who smoke, drink, or exercise, listen up.

Silence Dogood here. The other day, I read a news item on www.msn.com that really made me sit up and take notice. It was about the effect of taking aspirin on breast cancer. (And guys, don’t stop reading yet. I’ll be getting to you in a minute. And besides, you all have moms, and many have sweethearts, sisters, and daughters, right? The stats on breast cancer are horrifying: 2 million American women living with the disease now, and 40,000 deaths every year. And that’s just in the U.S.)

The data emerged from the prestigious Nurses’ Health Study, in which a team of doctors from the Harvard Medical School followed the health and habits of 238,000 registered nurses for 30 years, from 1976 to 2006. Nurses with breast cancer who took two to five aspirin a week, usually to prevent heart attacks and strokes, were 60% less likely to suffer a recurrence of the cancer and 71% less likely to die from it than nurses with breast cancer who didn’t take aspirin. (Weirdly, those in the study who took six or seven aspirin a week actually dropped their protection to 43% and 64%, respectively.) This news is being rather cautiously reported, since it was an observational effect rather than a clinical trial.

If you’re a breast-cancer survivor, you’re probably already rushing for the bottle (of aspirin, I hasten to add, and no, that’s not funny, given that even the most moderate alcohol consumption raises the odds of breast cancer recurrence). But if you’re not, what has this got to do with you? Plenty. So stay with me here.

Taking aspirin has already been shown to reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and various cancers, including colon and prostate cancers. But why? Because it reduces inflammation.

Inflammation is proving to be the great health villain of our time. As I’m reminded every time I go to the dentist and sit there being tortured—I mean, having my teeth cleaned—while staring at this enormous, grisly poster on the opposite wall, inflamed gums not only cause gum disease but can lead to heart disease and diabetes. Inflammation is apparently also what causes plaque buildup in the arteries, which can lead to blockage, blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes. Inflammation is now believed to be responsible for the initiation, spread, and recurrence of cancers. I’m waiting for the doctors to announce that inflammation is responsible for aging. (Seriously.)

So, how can a humble aspirin be the little David fighting such a huge Goliath? Aspirin is classified as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID for short). It reduces pain by reducing inflammation, which is why it can soothe a headache. And maybe even provide a preventive for the great ills of our day.

The clearest explanation I’ve found about how inflammation spreads cancer comes from Bernadine Healy, M.D. in an article called “Aspirin: A Blockbuster Therapy for Breast Cancer Survivors?” on the U.S. News & World Report website, www.usnews.com. I highly recommend reading the article in its entirety. Here’s what Dr. Healy had to say: “We do know that deadly cancers hijack the inflammatory system to spread and invade distant organs… “

Er, but what’s the “inflammatory system”? Does Dr. Healy mean the immune system? No. But the inflammatory sytem, as I learned through further research, is indeed part of the immune system. Inflammation is part of the body’s arsenal of natural self-defenses. But in this case as in so many others, there can definitely be too much of a good thing. To quote Peter A. Ward, M.D., of the University of Michigan’s Medical School, who’s spent a lifetime studying inflammatory diseases of the lungs, “When immune systems go awry, virtually without exception the problem begins with the triggering of a strong inflammatory response.”

That aspirin can effectively combat inappropriate inflammatory responses, and the damages they cause to our health, is the big good news, but there’s plenty more good news: You don’t need a prescription to buy aspirin. Aspirin wasn’t developed and patented by a pharmaceutical giant, so it’s widely available and cheaper than vitamins. And you don’t need to take megadoses to reap its anti-inflammatory benefits: a teensy “adult low dose” aspirin, with just 81 milligrams of aspirin (compared to a standard aspirin with 325 mg), will do the trick.

Of course, there’s always the flip side. Aspirin can cause stomach bleeding, and while it’s hard for me to believe that such a low dose would have any harmful effects on a healthy person, if you’re already on prescription drugs, you should definitely consult with your doctor before taking it. The Harvard team that conducted the Nurses’ Health Study warns that cancer patients undergoing radiation and chemotherapy should absolutely not take aspirin while they’re still undergoing treatment. And I would be concerned about taking aspirin, even at low doses, while also taking any type of blood thinner.

But there’s more good news: Other NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen (whatever that is), also had protective effects. (Acetominophen, the other popular alternative to aspirin, did not.)

So, folks, if you’re not already taking a daily (low) dose of aspirin to keep heart attack and stroke at bay, I suggest that you get with the program. I myself am not particularly worried about heart attacks or strokes—at least not anytime soon—but I’m terrified of cancer. I’ve known too many people, of all ages, who’ve fought that dreadful battle, and many who are still fighting it. If something as simple as an aspirin can help me slay that dragon before it takes a bite out of me, by God, I’m taking it. If you’re a smoker, since smoke inflames the lungs, it can’t hurt to take a low-dose aspirin every day to up your odds of avoiding lung cancer. If you enjoy your wine with dinner or your cocktail hour or your after-dinner drink, why not take an aspirin along with your vitamins to keep your liver and digestive system inflammation-free. If you’re an athlete (or even a weekend warrior) who’s putting inflammation-causing stress on your joints and muscles, take an aspirin with that glucosamine-and-chondroitin supplement.

Obviously, I’m a blogger, not a scientist, doctor, or researcher. I’m no expert making recommendations from on high. I’m just suggesting that you do the research for yourself—check all this out online—and use the sense God gave you. As the great poet W.B. Yeats said in another context, “One cannot begin it too soon.”

         ‘Til next time,

                        Silence

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Comments»

1. Elephant's Eye - February 23, 2010

A little wary of side effects of aspirin. You can take ‘enteric coated aspirin’. Vitamin D is supposed to protect against breast cancer. Especially if you also have osteoporosis. And being a night owl wreaks havoc with hormones, and is another risk factor. They say.

Thanks, Diana! All good to know! I was just reading a report of a study a few days ago that found that less than five hours of sleep a night was a contributing factor to weight gain in women, even when those women ate fewer calories than the control group that slept longer. Poor night owls!

2. Gail - February 24, 2010

I’ve decided to do an unofficial polling of my friends and find out what supplements they take….I’ll let you know! One friend is a colon cancer survivor and I am curious to see if she’s on an aspirin regimen. She’s a nurse and agrees that cancer seems to be epidemic these days. gail

Thanks, Gail! Please let me know. We definitely live in scary times.

3. Victoria - February 24, 2010

good to know….I’ll keep going with my low dose regimen.

Good plan, Victoria!

4. Jen - February 25, 2010

How interesting! Some fertility specialists prescribe baby aspirin for women trying to conceive. The theory is that tiny clots form in the blood vessels that nourish the embryo and preventing them avoids miscarriage. (I took it and have always wondered if that’s what finally made the difference for me!)

Wow, Jen! I’d never heard that. I wonder if it would help with inflammation caused by endometriosis, too…


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