Preventative Health

Aspirin Might Increase Your Risk of Dying From Cancer

By Charles Li MD

aspirin causes an increase in cancer deaths

Aspirin has been prescribed for years to prevent heart attacks.

Heart attacks are caused by blood clots that block arteries narrowed by plaque build up.

Meanwhile Aspirin reduces your blood’s ability to clot.

Theoretically, scientists thought that this should reduce your chances of getting a heart attack, which is why doctors have prescribed aspirin for decades as a preventative measure.

However, the question of whether this actually saved lives was not fully studied, until now.

McNeil Aspirin study design

In the largest study of its kind, 19,114 patients were randomly selected to take either aspirin or placebo, essentially a sugar pill, so that scientists could determine whether aspirin increases your life span.

Aspirin and cardiovascular disease risk

As expected, patients on aspirin had a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes.

However, this difference was surprisingly small. Scientifically, we would say that this is an insignificant difference because we can’t rule out the possibility that this was caused by chance alone.

Aspirin and overall mortality in healthy adults

Surprisingly, patients who took aspirin actually had a higher risk of dying over the 6 years of the study. This of course is surprising and concerning since doctors prescribe aspirin to save lives, not to kill patients.

The difference was not huge, but enough to suggest that this was probably not due to random chance or statistical error, the patients who took aspirin in this study most likely had higher odds of dying than patients who took sugar pills.

This then begs the question, what is causing patients on aspirin to die more often?

This was a highly unexpected result; no previous study had ever found significant evidence of aspirin causing higher mortality.

When researchers looked deeper into this, they found that this was driven by a very significant increase in cancer deaths.

Aspirin and cancer risk in healthy adults

This was a highly unexpected result; no previous study had ever found significant evidence of aspirin causing higher mortality. Therefore, we still are not sure why patients on aspirin had a higher risk of cancer death.

When scientists examined the risk of getting cancer in both groups, they found that the odds were only slightly increased in the aspirin group, likely not enough to account for the increase in cancer deaths.

Diagnoses of Cancer and aspirin
Key Takeaways

If your doctor put you on aspirin for a specific reason, for example a previous heart attacks or stroke, listen to your doctor, keep taking it, this research was only in healthy individuals and there is plenty of research showing the benefits of aspirin for those who need it.

The finding of increased cancer deaths in patients taking aspirin, combined with the finding that aspirin clearly doesn’t prevent deaths in healthy individuals, suggests that if you’re healthy, and taking aspirin just to prevent a heart attack, talk to your doctor about whether you should stop taking aspirin for prevention.

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