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Dr. Sanjay Gupta: An aspirin a day to keep Alzheimer's away?

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta

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Animation showing the effects of Alzheimer's disease on the brain (September 24)
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(CNN) -- Aspirin has been called a wonder drug because of its many uses, and new evidence suggests it is among a class of medications that may help, possibly even prevent, Alzheimer's disease.

CNN's medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, discussed the possible benefits and risks Tuesday with CNN anchor Bill Hemmer.

GUPTA: I recommend [aspirin] to a lot of my patients for all sorts of things. Thinning the blood, preventing stroke, heart attacks, possibly reducing the risk of colon cancer and now, as you say, Bill, possibly also preventing Alzheimer's disease.

This isn't brand new stuff, but it's starting to become more and more obvious. They looked at more than 3,000 people in Utah, people who were either near dementia or actually developed signs of dementia -- early signs of Alzheimer's disease -- and they actually looked at what their use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications are.

That is like Ibuprofen, Advil or aspirin, and they found that people who actually took those medications long term -- that is longer than two years, four times a week -- actually had a 45 percent risk reduction of Alzheimer's disease.

HEMMER: As it relates to Alzheimer's, how does this work within the body?

GUPTA: Let me just say first of all that not everyone is on board with this. There are some risks to taking these medications. This isn't a medication that people necessarily want to go out and start taking right away. There is some risk of gastrointestinal bleeding and things like that.

But there are a couple of theories. One is that Alzheimer's disease is actually caused by an inflammatory process in the brain. Simply put, if you take an anti-inflammatory, you might actually reduce the risk of Alzheimer's.

There is another theory about this as well. When you have Alzheimer's disease, you have a couple of enzymes in the brain that actually cause a breakdown of a couple of proteins. Eventually when that protein is split, it forms something called amyloid plaque.

The name is not that important, but imagine plaques of material in the brain disrupting some activity when it comes to neuronal transmission, things like that, possibly even leading to cell death. Anti-inflammatory medications are actually supposed to break that process down, not let it occur.

HEMMER: I can see some people ... saying, "I need to start taking aspirin, if indeed I am getting up into that age -- 55, 60, 65." Is that recommended?

GUPTA: Aspirin is recommended for a lot of different reasons. They don't have enough evidence to say that it is recommended for this reason as of yet. I think that it might be coming.

I think that it may be coming when you have a strong family history, or if somebody in your family has had Alzheimer's before. They may say, "Listen, you have no signs of dementia; you have no problems at all. Maybe a little memory loss like everyone does from time to time. But start taking your aspirin now so that you will have it in place; you will have the anti-inflammatory mechanisms in place, to stave off the Alzheimer's later on."

HEMMER: What do we look for when Alzheimer's may be in the process of setting in?

GUPTA: There are some pretty significant warning signs. We are talking about profound memory loss here -- not just forgetting recent appointments, things like that, but forgetting things that perhaps someone just told you.

When it starts interfering with your activities of daily living, when you are unable to dress yourself, things like that, you can't remember where you just placed things --these may be some early warning signs as well.

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