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Should You Take Aspirin Daily?

Millions of men and women take an aspirin every day to protect themselves against heart attacks and strokes. But should they? There are some important new guidelines out that are designed to help make that decision, which is more complicated than many probably think.

For years, doctors have been recommending that many middle-aged and elderly adults consider taking a baby aspirin every day. The idea is that aspirin reduces the chances of blood clots forming. Blood clots block arteries supplying blood to the heart and brain, which cause heart attacks and strokes.

Several medical groups endorse the strategy, including the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which sets federal policy on preventive health care. In 2002, the task force recommended that adults who have risk factors for heart attacks consider taking aspirin regularly.

But in the latest issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, the group updates its recommendations, taking the latest scientific evidence into consideration. Most notably, the group includes the results of the Women's Health Study, which provided the first good evidence ever about the benefits of aspirin for reducing the risk for heart disease for women. And the group concludes that it's not quite so simple a decision: It's different for men and women. It depends on how old you are. And the risks of excess gastrointestinal bleeding from aspirin are significant and need to be weighed against any potential benefit.

Here's the bottom line:

--Men between the ages of 45 and 79 should use aspirin to reduce their risk for heart attacks only when the benefits outweigh the harm.

--Women between the ages of 55 and 79 should use aspirin when the benefits outweigh the risks. But for them the benefit is primarily in reducing their risk for strokes.

The task forces stresses that anyone who has already had a heart attack or stroke should be routinely taking aspirin. But if you're just trying to reduce your risk of your first incident, the decision is more complicated. At this point it remains unclear whether anyone 80 or older should not take it.

A baby aspirin appears to be sufficient.

Risk factors include having high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and being overweight. Men who want to calculate their risk can use this tool. Women can use this tool.=

By Rob Stein  |  March 19, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  General Health  
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