Aspirin Use for Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease

A study by the Veterans Administration in the 1970’s on veterans over age 45 showed that if they were given aspirin they had fewer heart attacks and strokes.  This study didn’t divide the participants into men and women or patients who never had a heart attack or stroke versus patients who had known cardiac, Cerebrovascular and or Vascular Disease already.  The exact dosage of aspirin to take was never quite clarified either. For years physicians prescribed “baby aspirin” to patients over 45 to prevent heart attacks and strokes. While no definitive evidence existed to show the benefit was present in women as well as men, we tended to recommend the low dose aspirin in that group as well unless they were a high risk for bleeding.

Recent studies have questioned whether daily aspirin use for primary prevention of vascular disease is beneficial.  The current opinion is that a daily aspirin may cause more harm than good in women.  There is a feeling that the risk of bleeding may outweigh any benefit. The data is not quite as clear in men.  To add to the confusion, an article published in the journal Ophthalmology asserts that in a European study aspirin use was associated with an increased risk of developing wet, age related macular degeneration (AMD). Of the 4691 participants in the study, 36.4 % developed early AMD and 17% of that group took aspirin on a daily basis.  This is not the first study to raise this question with equivocal findings on several previous studies concerning the relationship between aspirin intake and AMD.  It is clear that further research is needed in this area.

The study is one of many that raise conflicts in approaching AMD and eye disease versus systemic health. This is especially a problem since these older AMD patients are the same ones who are more likely to already have cardiac, Cerebrovascular or Peripheral Vascular Disease and this is the very group that we know and agree that aspirin is beneficial in.

Clearly more studies are needed. I will continue to take my daily 81 mg of enteric coated aspirins unless I develop aspirin related gastritis, ulcers or GI Bleeding. My male patients over 45 years old with low or few risks of GI bleeding will continue to be advised to consider aspirin. With no studies showing a clear cut advantage for women taking aspirin for primary prevention of heart disease and stroke, I will present the pros and cons of therapy and advise it less frequently if the patient has a low risk of vascular disease or a high risk of bleeding.