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Regular Aspirin Protects Against Cancer Risk

Regular Aspirin Protects Against Cancer Risk

You already know that aspirin helps for hangovers and heart attacks, but a growing body of evidence is showing that aspirin may help stave off cancer as well. A 2016 study  in JAMA Oncology involving approximately 130,000 people linked regular aspirin use to a lower overall risk of cancer, and especially colorectal cancer and other gastrointestinal cancers.

The benefit was small for cancer in general, about a 3% reduction in risk. It jumped to 15% for cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, and 19% for colorectal cancer specifically. Doctors have known for some time about aspirin’s ability to cut cancer risk. “I think this study gives us a more precise estimate of the benefit,” says Keith Roach, MD, Sharecare’s chief medical officer.

Doctors aren’t sure how exactly aspirin lowers that risk. Roach notes that many side effects of aspirin -- stomach ulcers, nausea, gastrointestinal bleeding -- occur in the GI tract. “There’s something about the gut in particular,” he says. One common theory is that aspirin works in part by blocking certain chemicals called prostaglandins that cause inflammation. Those chemicals may also promote the growth of tumors.

But Who Needs It?
Experts haven’t settled that question yet, either. In April 2016 the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) finalized recommendations that people over 50 who are at increased risk of heart disease should take aspirin to guard against both a heart attack and colorectal cancer.

Roach says age and a person’s risk of cancer and heart disease are usually factors in determining who should take aspirin. The risk of heart disease increases for men at age 45 and for women at 55. Diabetes is another factor, since diabetes puts you at risk for heart disease.

“If you are at high risk of either cardiovascular disease or colon cancer, the benefits probably outweigh the risks,” he says. In fact, Roach goes a step further and says most men over 45, most women over 55, and almost everyone with diabetes should take low-dose aspirin.

Note, however, that no official guidelines yet advise taking aspirin only to reduce the risk of cancer.

How Much Should I Take?
The USPSTF guidelines suggest one low-dose “baby” aspirin—81 mg—every day as an easy-to-remember regimen. For cancer prevention, Roach says you’d need to take a low-dose aspirin twice a day, though.

Aspirin will not protect against cancer overnight. The study found that it takes about six years for benefits to show up, and Roach says it’s because colon cancer develops slowly. “The average time from polyps to cancer is seven years,” says Roach. “If the aspirin is working at the earliest stages, you won’t see a benefit for a long time.”

A Word of Warning
It’s extremely important to talk to your doctor before getting on a daily aspirin regimen; you should never make that decision on your own. “Any medication has the potential for harm and aspirin can cause serious bleeding problems,” says Roach. “Taking it every day is not something to be done lightly.”

Medically reviewed in May 2018.

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