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.

Screening Colonoscopy

A recent study proved what physicians and scientists suspected for years – early detection of colon cancer by screening colonoscopies saves lives. The current guidelines call for asymptomatic individuals to begin having a digital rectal exam at age 40. If there are no high risk situations for the patient then it is recommended that they start having screening colonoscopies at age 50. If their screening colonoscopy is negative then they can start scheduling follow-up colonoscopies for screening purposes every ten years.

Experts are now suggesting we stop performing screening colonoscopies at age 80.  At that age, the risk of a complication from the preparation for the test, plus the risk of a complication of the test (primarily perforation of the colon) make the risks far higher than the benefits. We certainly would continue to screen with annual digital rectal exams, and fecal occult blood tests, but the decision to perform a colonoscopy would be individualized based on the patients health, quality of life and expected longevity.

For high risk individuals, those with inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis), a history of polyps or a family history of colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease the schedule is more stringent and starts earlier. The same would apply to individuals with a family history of premalignant colon polyps.  The interval of time between colonoscopies is shortened as well. For example, if a patient had a first degree relative who developed colon cancer at age 50 we would start screening that patient at age forty.

Recent studies and evaluations of screening colonoscopies have actually shown that primary care physicians are recommending colonoscopies too frequently with too short of a time interval between studies.  If you are low risk and have no symptoms you begin at age 50 and space the colonoscopies every ten years if the studies are negative.

Within the past few years radiologists have developed the CT Colonoscopy. The prep is less arduous than a traditional colonoscopy. The films, when read by an experienced radiologist, are as detailed and accurate as a fiber-optic traditional colonoscopy. The down sides are the amount of radiation you are exposed to and the need to do a traditional colonoscopy to biopsy any suspicious lesions found on the CT Colonoscopy. Cost is a factor as well with many insurance companies refusing to use this technology for screening purposes.