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Experts say the benefits of taking a low-dose aspirin on a daily basis may be outweighed by the risks for people over 70 years old. Getty Images
  • A new study shows that a daily low-dose aspirin use may increase the risk of cancer in older adults.
  • The research supports other recent data suggesting that the risks of taking a daily aspirin outweigh the benefits.
  • There are still many unknowns surrounding potential risks and benefits of taking a daily aspirin.
  • As always, it’s best to consult with your doctor before considering starting or stopping a daily aspirin regimen.

It’s becoming more apparent that taking a daily low-dose aspirin every day to lower one’s risk of heart attack just isn’t worth the risk.

For decades, taking a so-called “baby aspirin” every day was seen as an effective way for older adults to lower their risk for heart attack or stroke.

The tide, though, has begun to shift.

A number of studies in recent years have shown that taking the low-dose drug can lead to a higher risk of internal bleeding.

Earlier this year, the American Heart Association clarified its position after its logo appeared on store displays of Bayer aspirin, implying that it endorsed taking a daily low-dose aspirin.

Now, findings from a new study published earlier this month in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI) show that taking a daily low-dose aspirin could accelerate the progression of cancer in adults over the age of 70.

In their analysis of nearly 20,000 older adults in Australia and the United States, the researchers found that taking a daily aspirin doubled the risk of a person age 70 or older dying from stage 3 cancer.

This same group also saw the risk of their cancer spreading to other parts of the body increase by about 20 percent.

“Aspirin use is ubiquitous in the United States, and studies have quoted that up to 29 million Americans take low-dose aspirin daily,” Dr. Elena A. Ivanina, a gastroenterologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Healthline. “Now, this new study shows that perhaps that isn’t the best idea.”

The messaging surrounding daily aspirin use has been confusing.

For example, a study published earlier this year in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology noted that a daily low-dose aspirin reduced the risk of cardiovascular events, although it did raise the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding.

A clinical pharmacist interviewed by Healthline says there are still plenty of questions surrounding the use of a daily aspirin.

“While the results [of the JNCI study] are concerning, more research is needed to confirm the association and possible reasons for it,” said Christine Cheng, PharmD, clinical pharmacist at First Databank, a drug and medical device database.

“For example, it could be that aspirin has a delayed benefit and that individuals in the study did not take aspirin long enough to observe a beneficial effect,” she explained. “Or there may be factors other than age, such as type of cancer or preexisting risk factors for cancer, that respond poorly to aspirin.”

Cheng notes that while some studies have suggested that a daily aspirin may have anticancer benefits, the actual mechanism of how aspirin may affect cancer isn’t known.

“Either way, these research findings present an opportunity for people to talk to their healthcare providers about the risks and benefits of taking daily aspirin, and whether it is appropriate for them,” Cheng said.

While taking a single low-dose aspirin every day might seem like a low-risk regimen that can be started without medical consultation, recent research indicates this isn’t the case.

With the uncertainty surrounding the risks and benefits of daily aspirin use, experts say it’s important that anyone considering such a routine talk with their doctor.

“[The JNCI data] is alarming given the popular use of aspirin, and physicians should consider implementing a more personalized, restrictive approach to prescribing aspirin,” Ivanina said.

Cheng points out that, even though aspirin is a familiar drug, anyone who buys a bottle should at the very least read and follow the instructions on the label.

Indeed, Bayer — the company that originally developed aspirin in the late 19th century — notes on its label that “Aspirin is not appropriate for everyone, so be sure to talk to your doctor before you begin an aspirin regimen.”

“It’s important to speak with your healthcare provider if your symptoms worsen or don’t improve within 3 days for a fever, or 7 to 10 days for pain,” Cheng said.

“Daily aspirin is no longer recommended as standard for heart attack or stroke prevention because we’ve learned that the risks for side effects such as internal bleeding outweigh the benefits for many patients. People shouldn’t start taking daily aspirin on their own,” she said.

For those who are considering taking a daily aspirin, Cheng recommends they ask their doctor five questions:

  • How might taking a daily aspirin benefit me?
  • How long would I need to take aspirin to prevent a heart attack or stroke and/or to potentially protect me from cancer?
  • What are my risks of taking a daily aspirin?
  • Am I taking any medications that might interact with aspirin or put me at risk for side effects?
  • Is this the right course of action for me?

“As this recent research highlights, there are still many unknowns about daily aspirin therapy,” Cheng said.

“There are, however, people who should be taking aspirin — and they should not stop therapy without first discussing that with their healthcare provider,” she said.