Aspirin & Heart Disease Prevention Recommendations

In the 1950’s a research paper based on work done at a Veterans Administration Hospital found that men 45 years of age who took a daily aspirin tended to have fewer heart attacks and strokes. The VA patients were mostly male WWII and Korean War Veterans. That was the basis for most of the men in my Baby Boomer generation to take a daily aspirin.

Yes, we knew that aspirin gives us an increased risk of bleeding from our stomach and intestine. And we knew that if we hit our head while on aspirin the amount of bleeding on the brain would be much greater. It was a tradeoff – benefits versus risks.

Over the years the science has advanced to now distinguish those taking aspirin to prevent developing heart disease, cerebrovascular disease or primary prevention and those seeking to prevent an additional health event such as a second heart attack or stroke. To my knowledge there are no studies that examine what happens to someone in their 60a or 70s who has been taking an aspirin for 40 plus years daily and suddenly stops. It’s a question that should be answered before electively stopping daily aspirin.

Over the last few years researchers have hinted that the daily aspirin may protect against developing colorectal cancer and certain aggressive skin cancers. The downside to taking the aspirin has always been the bleeding risk. This data is now being questioned by the USPTF looking for more “evidence.”

The US Preventive Services Task Force was formed in 1984 with the encouragement of employers, private insurers selling managed health care plans and members of Congress to try and save money in healthcare. It is comprised of volunteer physicians and researchers who are supposed to match evidence with medical procedures to ensure that we are receiving high value procedures only.

In 1998 Congress mandated that they convene annually. Under their direction, recommendations were made to stop taking routine chest x rays on adult smokers because it didn’t save or prolong life and it took $200,000 of X Rays to save one life. They reversed their opinion decades later deciding that the math on that study wasn’t quite right and now recommend CT scans on smokers of a certain age and duration of tobacco use. I point this out to emphasize why I am not quite as excited today about their change in aspirin guidelines as the newspaper and media outlet stations seem to be.

I am a never smoker, frequently exercising adult with high blood pressure controlled with medication, high cholesterol controlled with medication and recently diagnosed non obstructive coronary artery disease. What does that mean? At age 45 my CT Scan of my coronary arteries showed almost no calcium in the walls. 26 years later there is enough Calcium seen to increase my risk of a cardiac event to > 10% over the next ten years. I took a nuclear stress test and ran at level 5 with no evidence of a blockage on EKG or films. The calcium in the walls of the arteries however indicates that cholesterol laden foam cells living in the walls of my coronary arteries and moving towards the lumen to rupture and cause a heart attack were thwarted and calcified preventing that heart attack or stroke. I am certainly not going to stop my aspirin.

My thin healthy friend who works out harder than I do told me he doesn’t have heart disease and is going to stop his baby aspirin. I asked him what about his three stents keeping several coronary arteries open? He told me he had heart disease before he got the stents but now he doesn’t. I suggested he talk to his internist or cardiologist prior to stopping the aspirin.

I may take a different path in starting adults on aspirin for cardiovascular and cerebrovascular event protection. I am certainly not going to withdraw aspirin from patients taking it for years unless they are high risk for falls and head trauma or bleeding. I suggest you ask your doctor before considering changing any of your medications.

Try an exercise by writing down all the prescription medicines and next to them list what condition you take them for. Once you have established that information, set up an appointment and talk about it with your physician. The decision-making is much more complicated than the USPTF and headline hungry media discussed and reported.

Some Health Issues Should Not Be Evaluated in the Office

I received a phone call from an elderly gentleman who was closer to ninety years of age than 80, was taking an aspirin and had just suffered a fall and hit his head. He did not know why or how he fell. He asked for an appointment the same day to “check me out.” 

My staff asked all the pertinent questions and immediately brought the information to me.  After reviewing it, I felt for his safety his best course of action was to immediately call 911 (or have us do it) and go to our local emergency department for evaluation. The patient takes daily aspirins to prevent a second heart attack or stroke.

The antiplatelet action of the aspirin, plus his age and the head trauma necessitate an immediate and thorough evaluation with imaging. I do not have an X Ray unit, CT Scan unit or MRI unit in my internal medicine office. If I bring this gentleman into my office, he must transport himself, wait until I have time later in the day and probably will then have to wait to be scheduled by an imaging facility for a non-contrast CT scan of the brain to make sure doesn’t have a bleed between his brain and skull or a bleed in the brain. The delay in evaluation can threaten his survival and recovery. 

The patient was quite angry at the suggestion – quoting my concierge practice contract that says we will bring you in for a visit same day for an acute condition. The non-stated content is that we will bring you in same day for a condition that is appropriate for evaluation in an office setting. The same can be said for someone calling with acute substernal chest pain which could be a heart attack or sudden inability to breathe.  Add in excessive bleeding that does not respond to compression or loss of consciousness as conditions that are best evaluated and treated in an emergency department. These are all conditions that require a call to EMS via 911 and an immediate evaluation in an Emergency Department where the equipment exists to quickly evaluate and treat these problems safely. 

The patient was worried about the wait in the ED and COVID-19 exposure. Both concerns are understandable despite little transmission of Covid recorded in ED visits or in patient hospitalizations.

This patient has emailed me twice now demanding a full refund of his membership fee due to violation of the contract. The reasoning and concern have been explained to him several times already. My concern is that his new onset short temper and grumpy demeanor are the result of the fall and head trauma which still has not been evaluated.

Patients need to know that there are times a health issue requires evaluation and treatment in an emergency department.  It has nothing to do with a contract.  It has everything to do with making the right clinical recommendation for the patient.

Scientific Reports, Media Reports and Ambiguity

Last week I read an article in a peer reviewed journal citing the benefits of a few eggs per week as part of a low carbohydrate dietary intervention for Type II Diabetes.  The information was so meaningful about a controversial food source of protein that I decided to write about it in my blog and pass it along to my patients.  Three days later the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology discussed the increased risk of cardiovascular events and mortality in individuals consuming three or more eggs regularly. They talked about the detrimental cholesterol being concentrated in the yolk making egg white omelets look healthier than traditional omelets.

In the early 1970’s a VA study was published showing that veterans over 45 years of age who took an aspirin a day had fewer heart attacks and strokes and survived them better than those who don’t.  Fast forward almost 50 years and we have different recommendations for people who have never had an MI or CVA or evidence of cardiovascular disease compared to secondary prevention in individuals who have known coronary artery disease, cerebrovascular disease or diabetes. Throw in the controversial discussions of aspirin preventing colorectal adenomas from developing, aspirin preventing certain types of skin cancers and today’s report that suggests it may prevent liver cancer. Now three studies suggest that in older individuals (70 or greater) the risk of bleeding negates the benefits of cardio and cerebrovascular protection and aspirin may not actually prevent heart attacks and strokes in that age group.

We then turn to statins and prevention of heart attacks and numerous articles about not prescribing them to older Americans.  I saw articles on this topic covered by CNN, the Wall Street Journal, ARP Journal, AAA magazine and in several newsletters published by major national medical centers.  In each piece they caution you to talk to your doctor before stopping that medicine.

I am that seventy year old patient they all talk about.  I have never smoked. I exercise modestly on a regular basis, getting my 10,000 or more steps five or more days a week.  I battle to keep my weight down and find it difficult to give up sweets and bread when so many other of life’s pleasures are no longer available due to age and health related suggestions.

There are clearly no studies that look at patients who took a statin for 15 years and aspirins for over 20 years, stopped them and then were followed for the remainder of their lives.   How will they fare compared to patients who never took them?

I have this discussion every day with my patient’s pointing out the current guidelines and trying to individualize the suggestions to their unique lifestyle and issues. On a personal level, I still have no idea what the correct thing is to do even after discussing it with my doctors.  How can I expect my patients to feel any differently?

Aspirin for Breast Cancer?

Aspirin (2)In an observational study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2010, Drs. Michelle Holmes and Wendy Chen of the Harvard Medical School showed that women with breast cancer who took one aspirin per week had a 50% lower chance of dying from breast cancer. They have been trying to set up a randomized blinded study of 3000 women with breast cancer to test this finding using the gold standard of research but they have been unable to raise the $10,000,000 required for a five year study. Pharmaceutical companies see no profit in aspirin and prefer to use their research money on medications that are potentially more profitable. Government agencies seem to feel the same way opting to test new cancer drugs pushed by pharmaceutical companies rather than finance an inexpensive available product.

The authors believe aspirin, if proven to be effective in randomized trials, is a less expensive alternative for women who cannot afford or cannot tolerate hormonal therapy post-surgery for five years. Great Britain, through its national health service has decided to study the effects of aspirin on four cancers, with breast cancer one of them, in a study that will not be completed until 2025. Drs. Holmes and Chen believe that with proper funding their study of women with stage 2 and 3 breast cancer, would answer the question of aspirin’s efficacy within five years.

Low Dose Aspirin Cuts Colon Cancer Risk in Women

AspirinNancy Cook, SCD of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and colleagues reported in the July 16, 2013 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine that data from the Women’s Health Initiative including 39,876 women 45 years or older, who were randomly assigned to take 100 mg of aspirin every other day for ten years, experienced a 20% reduction in the risk of colorectal cancer. The study did not show that there was an all-cause reduction in mortality .

The very conservative US Preventive Services Task Force currently recommends aspirin in Women 55 – 79 only if potential benefits are greater than harms. The aspirin group did have more bleeding from peptic ulcers and gastrointestinal bleeding. The article was accompanied by an editorial comment by Peter Rothwell, MD, PhD of the University of Oxford. He felt that the risk of bleeding and the fact that there was no all-cause mortality reduction, or risk in all cause cancer reduction, should result in a tempering of suggestions for widespread use of aspirin in healthy middle-aged women. MedPage Today, the online Journal of the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine, ran a comment from Dr. Randal Burt, MD, a gastroenterologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute who felt that this was one more piece of evidence that aspirin can reduce colorectal cancer.

It is clear that there are multiple studies showing that aspirin can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. There are studies showing it reduces the risk of a stroke in women as well.

Like all decisions to take or prescribe a medication, the risks and benefits must be examined first. It is clear to me that in a woman with a strong family history of colorectal cancer, and little or no history of gastrointestinal or systemic bleeding, an aspirin with close monitoring should seriously be considered.

Is Aspirin Resistance A True Entity?

Aspirin

Aspirin has been a recognized agent to inhibit platelet function and prevent clotting.  We use it to prevent heart attacks and strokes. It’s used in individuals who have a transient ischemic attack or mini-stroke to prevent a future major stroke. It’s also used as a component of the therapy in patients who have stents put in arteries to relieve arterial blockages.

Despite the use of the aspirin, either alone or in concert with other medications, a certain percentage of patients do have the heart attack or stroke we are hoping to avoid. Scientists have postulated that a number of these patients have a condition called aspirin resistance. They believe aspirin may not work in them due to genetic factors that affect the way aspirin works. The belief is so strong that certain labs now offer genetic assays to assess whether you are a patient with aspirin resistance.

Garret A. FitzGerald, MD, and associates from the University of Pennsylvania published their research in the online section of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association which questions the existence of aspirin resistance at all. They recruited 400 healthy non-smoking participants between the ages of 18- 55 to measure the response to the ingestion of a traditional 325 mg regular aspirin or an enteric coated version.  They were able to use several different well accepted measures of aspirins anti-platelet effects to divide the group into aspirin responders and non-responders. They basically found that the non-responders were primarily individuals who received enteric coated aspirin. When you tested their blood in the laboratory with regular non-coated aspirin, or tested them with non-coated aspirin, they suddenly became responders.  FitzGerald and colleagues concluded that “pseudo resistance is caused by delayed and reduced absorption of coated aspirins.”

Doctors and pharmacists have encouraged the use of “coated” aspirin to offset aspirin’s tendency to irritate the lining of the stomach and duodenum and initiate gastrointestinal bleeding. Based on this paper it seems reasonable to suggest to patients that they use regular uncoated aspirin to achieve the desired anti-platelet effect if the patient is not high risk for intestinal bleeding.

 

Aspirin – Cardiovascular and Cancer Benefits

In this week’s on line edition of MedPage, a publication of the University Of Pennsylvania Perelman School Of Medicine, they summarize a series of articles published in the prestigious medical journal Lancet, which conclude that taking aspirin daily reduces your risk of cancer.

Aspirin received its notoriety after a Veterans’ Administration study years ago noted that if you took a daily aspirin and were a male over 45 years old you had fewer heart attacks and strokes. That classic study has led to the recommendation over the years that everyone over the age of 45 years old take aspirin daily to prevent cardiovascular events. No one can quite agree on the dosage of a full aspirin (325 mg), a baby aspirin (81 mg), or two baby aspirin?

As more and more people began taking aspirin for cardiovascular benefits researchers noted more frequent episodes of major internal bleeding either in the gastrointestinal tract or in the brain and head. At the same time, it was whispered among professionals that taking aspirin daily reduced adenomatous growths in the colon (pre-malignant polyps) and reduced colon cancer.   In the past few weeks several studies have tried to stratify whether aspirin use daily should be restricted to men as opposed to women, or to individuals with documented heart and vascular disease for secondary prevention of the next heart attack or stroke rather than primary prevention.  They cited the large number of bleeding episodes in individuals trying to protect themselves from their first heart attack or stroke compared to the events prevented and lives saved.

Today’s MedPage review of three Lancet articles claims that daily aspirin use reduces the risk of adenomatous cancer by 38% and cancer mortality by 15%. It reduces the development of metastatic disease by up to 15%.  These studies looked at more than 51 trials, including well over 100,000 participants, leading Dr Peter Rotwell of Oxford University in the United Kingdom to say that the papers “add to the case for the long term use of aspirin for cancer prevention in middle age.”

As a primary care physician I will continue to take my daily 81 mg enteric coated buffered aspirin (2) with food and take my chances with GI bleeding and cerebral hemorrhage.  If my patients do not have any strong contraindications to aspirin ingestion I will continue to make the suggestion that if they are over 45 years old they consider doing the same.

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.

Aspirin Holiday Carries Its Risks

A recent publication in the British Medical Journal looked at the risk of stopping aspirin therapy and taking a drug holiday from it if you are taking aspirin as secondary prevention for heart disease. The study, conducted from 2000 – 2007, looked at almost 40,000 participants aged 50-84 who were taking low dose aspirin (75- 300 mg per day) for secondary prevention of cardiovascular outcomes. They followed the patients for 3.2 years.

Researchers determined that individuals who stopped aspirin for 1-6 months had significantly more myocardial infarctions (heart attacks) and cardiovascular deaths than individuals who continued the aspirin.  Most of the patients who stopped the medication just stopped it on their own for no particular reason.

The study has implications for patients who have known coronary artery disease, have had a heart attack or stent placed or have survived bypass surgery. It says that if you stop the aspirin you increase your risk of having a cardiac event.

As a physician I am always faced with phone calls from patients going for minor dental work and the dentist insists on stopping the aspirin. I have patients going for elective cosmetic procedures who are required to stop their aspirin.  The message must be “is the risk of excessive bleeding from the elective procedure greater than the risk of having a heart attack?”  This is a question you should ask your cardiologist, internist or family physician before stopping the aspirin. You and they will need to ask your dentist or surgeon the same question before you stop the aspirin.

There will be times when you will have no choice but to accept that increased risk to have work done which may be necessary.  By informing your physician of the problem, and discussing it with the surgeon or dentist, we can determine if stopping the aspirin is essential and if there are other measures we can take to prevent a cardiac event.