Written by: Cally Worden
It has long been believed that aspirin can offer protection from heart disease, but a recent report by the Queen Mary University of London suggests that it can also help to reduce the risk of developing bowel and stomach cancers. So should we all rush out to the chemist and stock up?
A Question of Balance
Numerous studies have been conducted into the relative benefits and potential harmful effects of prolonged aspirin consumption. The recent review examined collectively around 200 of these studies in order to arrive at a general consensus whether aspirin is helpful or not in the fight against cancer.
On the benefits side, the review revealed that the number of cases and deaths from bowel, oesophageal and stomach cancers were seen to reduce by 30-40% where aspirin was taken regularly. There was also some suggestion that the drug could contribute to a reduction in the number of deaths from lung, prostate and breast cancer too, but the evidence related to these types of cancer was more variable.
It was concluded that in order to realise the above benefits, people would need to be taking aspirin regularly for at least five years for the positive effects to be active. Certain medical professionals would advocate that all healthy people over the age of 50 should take a small dose of aspirin, around 75 mg of the drug, daily. They project that if 1000 people aged 60 started taking this daily dose then over the course of the following decade some 16 deaths from cancer would be prevented.
Prolonged use of aspirin has side effects that should not be ignored. It can thin the blood and cause internal bleeding, particularly in the stomach and on the brain. The side effects are thought to be more prevalent in smokers and heavy drinkers, and those who suffer from other blood disorders or who may already be taking blood-thinning medications, but can afflict anyone.
The results of the study suggested that if everyone in the UK aged between 50 and 64 took the drug daily, then some 122,000 lives could be saved over 20 years. This increased usage of aspirin would, however, result in around 18,000 deaths from known side-effects in the same period. It is clear that aspirin has benefits to bring to the battle against cancer, but the risk and relative unpredictability of side effects continue to make Doctors wary of hailing it as a prevention gem. Until more is understood about the way aspirin works against cancer, and the way in which its side effects are produced, it is unlikely that aspirin will be recommended as a preventative medicine for the majority of the population.