Everyone aged over 45 should consider a small daily dose of aspirin to help protect themselves against heart disease and cancer, a panel of experts suggested yesterday.
Evidence is building that the benefits for many healthy middle-aged and older people “far outweigh” the side effects, according to the academics.
In particular, individuals at higher risk from the country’s two biggest killers would be helped by taking the painkiller as a preventive medicine, they added.
The experts were speaking at the Royal Society of Medicine a month after research from Oxford University published in The Lancet showed that taking 75mg of aspirin daily for five years reduces the risk of getting bowel cancer by a quarter, and deaths from the disease by a third. A 75mg dose is a quarter of the standard over-the-counter pill.
Earlier studies had already shown that a low daily dose could reduce the risk of developing heart disease.
Members of the panel said that the recent research was potentially of “enormous importance” to public health.
Bowel, or colorectal, cancer is the third most common form of the disease in
The Lancet study suggests greater aspirin use could potentially save thousands of lives a year in relation to this one cancer alone.
But research is also looking into whether aspirin could have a preventive effect on other types of cancer as well.
Combined, all cancers claim more than 150,000 lives in
Prof Peter Rothwell, the
But members of the public might take matters into their own hands before then, he predicted.
“If it becomes clear that there are benefits for other cancers, then the balance of risk and benefit will become so clear that people may take the decision to take it for themselves,” he said. “It seems implausible that this effect on colorectal cancer is going to be a completely isolated phenomenon in relation to other cancers, given that we know that there are similarities between how cancers develop.”
Prof Rothwell said that he thought it would be “sensible” for people to start taking aspirin at about 45, when the chance of developing bowel and other cancers began to rise. “The risk of cancer goes up substantially between the age of 40 and 55,” he said.
As aspirin had a preventive effect, it was advisable to start taking it daily towards the beginning of that period, he explained. However, he said it was ultimately up to individuals to decide whether to take the drug, “rather than us making definitive statements”.
Prof Peter Elwood, of
Prof Gordon McVie, a leading cancer specialist, from the European Institute of Oncology, said the discussion among the experts was whether this was metaphorically a “put-it-in-the-water moment”.
Opinion on the subject varies however. Experts are divided particularly over the question of to whom aspirin should be recommended as a daily preventive medicine.
The drug was formulated as a painkiller more than a century ago but researchers are finding that it can help in diseases ranging from heart disease to dementia.
Advocates believe that its active ingredient is akin to a vitamin that almost everybody should take, as our modern diet does not provide it. Others point out that taking the drug is known to double the incidence of intestinal bleeding, from about one in 1,000 people per year to about two.
The question is how much of the population – in terms of their age and their risk of developing serious diseases – should be recommended to take aspirin on a daily basis.
Prof McVie said: “I think there’s a frankly conservative feeling in this group, that for [colorectal] cancer, it should be targeted for people at higher risk.”
Prof Sir John Burn, a geneticist at
“We know aspirin can cause gastrointestinal bleeding. That is to some extent holding back the situation.” Prof Dion Morton, a colorectal surgeon at University Hospital Birmingham, was another of those attending yesterday’s meeting, which was convened by the Aspirin Foundation.
He said that medicine was increasingly using a “stratified approach, where we target the right drugs at the right patients”.
He thought regulatory approval should be sought for doctors to prescribe aspirin as a preventive medicine for those at a higher risk of bowel cancer. “If they have not been told in writing they should be advocating it, they won’t advocate it,” Prof Morton said.
While intestinal bleeding was serious, research suggested that aspirin increased the risk only of less serious cases, said Prof Elwood. He said there was some evidence that the intestines adjusted to aspirin over the long term.