The risks might be greater than the benefits. But talk to your doctor before you make a change.
Many people take a low-dose aspirin (75-100 mg) every day to protect their heart. But new guidelines may be changing this common practice.
The US Preventive Service Task Force makes recommendations to doctors for patient care. Recently it warned that aspirin may have more health risks than benefits for some people.
Aspirin does help the heart by thinning the blood and preventing clots from developing. These clots can block the flow of blood to the heart and cause a heart attack. Or they can flow to the brain and cause a stroke.
But aspirin also increases the risk for harmful bleeding in the body. It can cause bleeding in the stomach and intestines and, in the brain, it can cause a type of stroke (called hemorrhagic).
Research bears this out. A 2018 study of over 15,000 people with diabetes in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that those who took a 100mg aspirin every day had a 12% drop in heart attacks and strokes compared to those who didn’t take aspirin. But they also had a 29% jump in bleeding incidents. Another study of over 19,000 healthy people age 70 and older found that aspirin had no heart benefits and a higher bleeding risk.
According to the new guidelines, people in their 40s and 50s should not start taking aspirin to prevent a first heart attack or clot-related stroke (called ischemic). People age 60 or older have an even higher risk of bleeding from aspirin and are strongly cautioned not to start taking it.
If you have already had a heart attack or a stroke, however, aspirin may be right for you. This also applies to people who have had heart bypass surgery, or angioplasty and stents to open up blocked arteries. Then the benefits of aspirin may be greater than the risk of having dangerous bleeding.
Keep in mind that the new recommendations only matter if you are not on aspirin yet. If you already take aspirin to prevent a heart attack or stroke, stay on aspirin. But talk to your doctor about whether it is right for you. It’s very important that you do not stop or start taking aspirin unless you have discussed it with your doctor.
Doctors have other ways besides aspirin to help their patients lower their risk of heart attacks and strokes. For instance, your doctor can put you on medication to lower your blood pressure, or a drug to decrease your cholesterol, if these problems affect you.
There is also a lot that you can do to keep your heart healthy:
- Eat a plant-based diet. Diets like the Mediterranean diet feature lean protein like chicken or fish, plenty of vegetables and fruits, beans, seeds and nuts, and low-fat dairy products. Limit sugary, salty, and fatty foods, and use more healthy fats, such as olive oil, instead of butter or stick margarine
- Exercise for 30 to 45 minutes, most days of the week. Walk around your neighborhood with a friend, ride a regular bicycle or stationary bike, or swim at a local gym or Y. Almost any physical activity can help your heart work harder and get stronger
- Find ways to relax. Calming activities like meditating or spending time with good friends can help lower your stress levels. And make sure you allow yourself the time for a good night’s sleep
- Quit smoking. Don’t be discouraged if you slip up at first. It can take several tries to finally kick the habit
These measures can go a long way to protect you from serious heart problems—whether or not your doctor prescribes a daily aspirin!