August 24, 1995
From Medical Correspondent Andrew Holtz
(CNN) -- Mundane, common, and yet startlingly powerful. That seemingly contradictory description is the emerging image of aspirin. The everyday headache pill is now a mainstay of heart attack prevention... and other uses may be on the horizon.
In one form, aspirin is as old as medicine. "Hippocrates used the bark of the white willow tree, an extract from it, for his patients to reduce aches and pains so we really knew it, that far back, and for inflammation we've known it. We just didn't know it had other properties," Dr. Julie Buring, of Harvard Medical School, says.
Some of those other properties include preventing heart attacks, which are often triggered by a blood clot in a clogged artery. Aspirin makes blood less sticky and it doesn't clot as much.
Dr. Charles Hennekens of Harvard Medical School says it can dramatically alter a patient's risk of heart attack. "Those having a heart attack will have a far lower risk of having a second heart attack, a stroke, or their death rate is lowered almost a quarter. Aspirin has the best benefit to risk ratio and benefit to cost ratio of any therapy of acute heart attacks."
Now aspirin is practically gospel among heart patients. "I take a baby aspirin a day," says one man who works out regularly as well. Another man says his doctor recommended the same combination. "He said aspirin and exercise. That's what I do." A third patient says taking aspirin daily is almost a reflex. "And it's just a routine: I brush my teeth, I take my medication, and I take aspirin every single day."
But, Dr. Charles Hennekens says, the practice of using aspirin isn't necessarily being used nationwide. "But there's still almost 30 percent of patients in a recent survey that weren't getting aspirin during an acute heart attack."
The women's health study is a massive effort. Thirty thousand women taking various combinations of aspirin: beta- carotene, vitamin E, and placebo pills. Over several years it will generate massive streams of health data. And that may answer questions- not only about preventing heart attacks and strokes but about other killers, including cancer.
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