Taking an aspirin a day to keep the doctor away? Think again

February 6, 2015
Hand holding a foam heart.

There are other ways to manage your heart health other than taking aspirin as a preventative measure.

Do you have a higher risk for having a heart attack or stroke? Do you take aspirin regularly to reduce your risk? If you do, you might want to rethink your daily ritual. Recent studies suggest that taking aspirin daily might cause more harm than good in some patients. While aspirin can have significant beneficial effects, it’s important to consult with your physician before beginning (or ending) any regular medication, says John P. Erwin, III, MD, a cardiologist and associate professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine.

“There was a study done in the 1970’s that discovered that people who had suffered a heart attack benefited from a daily regimen of aspirin,” Erwin said. “Ever since then, people have begun to add aspirin to their daily routine as a preventative measure, even if they have not had a heart attack, in hopes that they might prevent one. What they don’t realize is that they might be putting themselves at risk for other complications.”

In fact, while aspirin can reduce the chance of having a heart attack or stroke, it can also cause gastrointestinal bleeding or even hemorrhagic stroke (a high-risk stroke that involves brain bleeding).

In those predisposed to heart disease, whether or not you take aspirin depends upon your individual cardiovascular risks.

“There are many ways cardiologists can calculate risk, but in the end, if your risk calculation is below a certain point, your physician probably won’t recommend adding aspirin to your daily regimen,” Erwin said.

Your risk is dependent upon many factors, including: age, gender, race, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, as well as family history and various lifestyle choices. It’s best to consult with your physician to determine whether or not aspirin is a good choice for you as a daily preventative.

According to Erwin, finding a physician who works with you as a partner to develop your treatment plan can make a world of a difference in your health.

“Especially in heart-matters, it’s important that you find someone who is willing to work with you and customize your treatment. Every person is different as to their benefits from a certain therapy, such as with aspirin, so tailoring treatment to your specific risks and lifestyle is paramount,” Erwin advised.

It’s old news, but still good to keep in mind: Maintaining a good diet and getting the recommended amount of physical activity everyday can improve your overall (and cardiovascular) health.

“Taking aspirin is not the only way you can reduce your risk for cardiovascular complications,” Erwin noted. “Exercising and eating right can have a tremendous effect on reducing your risk.”

The recommended amount of physical activity is 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity in addition to a couple of days of strength training. “This doesn’t mean you have to go for a 30 minute run, five days a week. Even just walking at a brisk pace everyday can give you the health benefits associated with exercise,” Erwin said.

As far as a healthy diet is concerned, Erwin recommends adopting the Mediterranean Diet in order to improve heart health. Recent studies found the diet reduced cardiovascular-associated risks significantly. The Mediterranean Diet focuses on consuming plant-based foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes and nuts and minimizes the intake of sweets and red meats to only a couple days a month. The diet substitutes these foods with fish and poultry, which should be eaten at least twice a week. The Mediterranean Diet encourages the use of healthy fats (like olive oil) in place of butter and using herbs and spices to season food instead of salt.

Ultimately, the best way to reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke is by leading a healthy lifestyle, not by depending solely on aspirin to do the work for you.

— Elizabeth Grimm

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