US panel backs using aspirin to cut heart risks

Drug can help fight heart attacks, strokes and colon cancers, it says

NEW YORK • For years, doctors recommended aspirin to lower cardiovascular risk in certain men and women. Now, for the first time, an expert panel is recommending it to prevent heart attacks and colorectal cancer.

The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) report said that people between the ages of 50 and 59 years at an increased risk of heart disease and stroke should take daily low-dose aspirin.

In addition to preventing heart attacks and strokes, those people may reduce their risk of colon cancer if they take aspirin for at least 10 years, said USPSTF on Monday.

It is the first time a major American medical organisation has issued a broad recommendation to take aspirin to prevent a form of cancer. It follows growing evidence that aspirin may be a potent yet overlooked weapon against colorectal cancer. The task force based its recommendations on a series of evidence reviews it commissioned.

One review found that when aspirin was taken to prevent a first heart attack, it reduced heart attacks by 22 per cent and cut the overall death rate by 6 per cent, but did not reduce strokes or deaths from cardiovascular causes.

Another data analysis found a reduction in strokes.

A separate analysis on colorectal cancer found aspirin use cut colorectal cancer deaths by 33 per cent and reduced colon cancer incidence by 40 per cent. People needed to take aspirin at least five to 10 years to have the protection.

The proposal is narrower than USPSTF's previous recommendations, which set guidelines by gender and also recommended the drug for people of other age groups.

"The people we recommend taking aspirin are at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and who are not at an increased risk of bleeding complications," said Dr Doug Owens, a member of the panel.

Even so, the draft guidelines are drawing criticism from some experts who worry that healthy people who take aspirin also expose themselves to its very serious side effects, including stomach bleeds and haemorrhagic strokes or brain bleeds.

Others say there are far better proven ways to prevent heart attacks and thwart colon cancer, such as cholesterol and blood-pressure-lowering drugs to reduce heart risk and screening colonoscopy to identify precancerous polyps.

The task force found that the benefits outweighed the risks in adults ages 50 to 69 who are at high risk for heart disease. The biggest benefit was seen in high-risk people in their 50s. The recommendation is weaker for high-risk adults 60 to 69, because the risk of harmful bleeds increases with age.

The task force wields enormous influence. Its recommendations on things like mammograms and prostate cancer screening have changed the way doctors practise medicine in the US.

- THE NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2015, with the headline 'US panel backs using aspirin to cut heart risks'. Print Edition | Subscribe