Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Lisa Smyth: Can an aspirin really have the power to fight heart disease?

Cases of heart disease and strokes could be cut by simply taking an aspirin a day, |medical experts have said. Lisa Smyth examines the latest claims being made about the so-called wonder drug.

People of a certain age can enjoy life-saving benefits from taking a simple, cheap medication: aspirin.

Aspirin has hit the headlines again — this time for its apparent revolutionary powers to ward off some of the UK’s biggest killers before they happen.

Medical experts have prescribed a daily dose of aspirin for millions of people to beat heart disease and strokes.

Researchers calculated the ideal age for taking the tablet to improve circulation and help people to live longer.

GPs are now being urged to hand out the wonder drug to all healthy men over 48 and women over 57, as patients in these age groups have a 10% risk in the next decade of cardiovascular disease — which refers to the class of diseases that involve the heart, arteries and veins.

But how important are these findings and should people across Northern Ireland be rushing out to the shops to buy this over-the -counter wonder drug?

There is no doubt that something needs to be done to cut the number of deaths and lives torn apart by heart disease and strokes in Northern Ireland.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is one of the main causes of premature death in the UK — just under one third of men and 23% of premature deaths in women were from CVD in 2005. CVD caused just under 57,000 premature deaths in the UK in 2005.

Meanwhile, an estimated 150,000 people have a stroke in the UK each year and there are over 67,000 deaths due to stroke each year in the UK.

Stroke accounts for 9% of all deaths in men and 13% of deaths in women in the UK. Stroke patients occupy around 20% of all acute hospital beds and one quarter of long term beds.

It also has a greater disability impact than any other chronic disease — over 300,000 people are living with moderate to severe disabilities as a result of stroke and the direct cost of stroke to the NHS is estimated to be £2.8bn.

So the findings not only have the potential to save lives but also save a massive amount of money — which could be used to pay for other much-needed health care.

Under existing recommendations, a GP will prescribe a course of aspirin — it prevents blood from clotting, which makes it such an invaluable tool in the fight against CVD and stroke — if a person has already suffered a heart attack or a stroke.

It is also prescribed to patients if factors such as high blood pressure put them at high risk of suffering such an attack in coming years.

But a mass medication programme could halt the disease, according to the findings of the experts who carried out the research.

And with supermarkets such as Tesco selling packets of 16 300mg aspirin for just 13p, is it surprising that the findings have been met with caution? The British Heart Foundation has said more research is needed before ‘blanket prescribing’ could be recommended.

Dr Mike Knapton, director of prevention and care at the charity, said: “Currently the recommendations in the UK are that aspirin is prescribed after a full risk assessment under medical supervision to those who have established cardiovascular disease.

“Further robust research is needed before aspirin should be considered as a blanket primary prevention measure in the UK.

“We would encourage everyone to examine their own individual risk and take steps to reduce it by adjusting their lifestyle.”

So, while more research could prove the claims being made about the miraculous qualities a daily dose of aspirin could offer, it is important to remember that the drug is not suitable for everyone — particularly those suffering from stomach conditions — and could cause more harm than good.

Until more concrete evidence is unearthed, perhaps efforts should be directed into ensuring that any remaining questions about the powers of aspirin are answered through further research so that as many lives as possible can be saved.

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