The documented benefits of aspirin go back, literally, thousands of year. As early as the fifth century B.C., Hippocrates noted that a bitter willow bark extract – which contained chemicals very similar to today’s aspirin – was effective at relieving pain. Since then, aspirin has become the most commonly used medicine in the world, and its benefits have been shown to reach well beyond pain relief to include the prevention of heart attack, stroke, and now cancer.
Studies have shown for a number of years that taking a daily aspirin could lower the risk of developing and dying of colon cancer, with the latest large analysis by Rothwell and colleagues finding a 25 percent drop in the risk of developing the disease, and a 35 percent risk of dying from it, with as little as 75mg of aspirin a day (previous post; study).
Now, a new analysis by Rothwell and colleagues – which combined data on over 25,000 participants in eight randomized controlled trials – shows big reductions in the risk of cancer deaths with aspirin use, not only for colon cancer, but for a broad range of individual cancers, and for cancer overall (study). Daily aspirin use for five or more years lowered the risk of cancer death overall by 34 percent compared to placebo.
Strikingly, the benefits persisted, and even expanded, long after the end of the trials and the aspirin treatment. After up to 20 years of follow-up, overall cancer deaths were 22 percent lower in the aspirin group compared to placebo. The risk of esophageal cancer death was 58 percent lower. The risk of colorectal cancer death was 40 percent lower, and lung cancer deaths nearly 30 percent lower.
In general, the longer the daily aspirin use, the more robust the cancer benefits.
The findings of this latest study, combined with all the previous ones, could possibly rebalance the discussion of the risks and benefits of aspirin use. When looking at aspirin’s benefits in the past, the focus was largely on the heart benefits, and while these benefits could be substantial, they still needed to be balanced with the risks that go along with aspirin use, most commonly an increased risk of bleeding in the GI tract and possibly the brain.
With long term demonstrated benefits in lowering cancer deaths, which persist even after daily aspirin use of 5 – 10 years, the balance may be tipping toward the benefits of aspirin outweighing the risks for a broader swath of the population than is currently recommended (which is largely limited to those at high risk of heart attack).
At the cost of just pennies a day, it may just be what the doctor ordered.