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The Heart of the Matter: Taking Aspirin for Heart Health

July 02, 2015 Posted in: Personal Health , Article

Have you been told that you should be on an aspirin a day for your heart? Is your parent or grandparent taking aspirin to prevent or treat a heart condition? Perhaps you've heard a lot about it on TV or online and are wondering if you should start taking aspirin. While aspirin is a commonly used drug, it's still important that you know what it is and how it works to help you understand why a physician might ask you or a loved one to take aspirin for heart health.

Aspirin Use and Your Heart: The Link

Aspirin is associated with the prevention and treatment of heart disease because the aspirin molecule discourages the formation of blood clots. Blood clots are formed when platelet cells — tiny pieces of bigger cells that float in the blood, looking for something to repair — are called into action by an injury. The plug they form stops bleeding long enough for bigger cells in your body to come around and begin the healing process.

This platelet system works great — until it's activated by mistake. If platelet cells gather inside a vessel in your heart, they can end up hurting instead of healing, and can even stop the flow of blood. This results in an infarction, or the death of the tissue beyond the block. That's what we commonly call a heart attack. Similarly, a platelet plug inside one of the vessels of the brain can cut off blood flow and cause a stroke.

That's where aspirin, which stops platelets from activating and sticking together, saves lives. For people with diseases that put them at risk for a heart attack or stroke, aspirin can significantly reduce their risk of having one of these life-threatening events. In men at risk, taking aspirin for heart disease can reduce the odds of a heart attack by up to 32 percent, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Should You Use Aspirin?

To find out if you or your loved one would benefit from daily aspirin, talk to a medical professional. Doctors often recommend aspirin for men over 45 with high LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, or a smoking habit. Aspirin is specifically not recommended for men younger than 45 or who aren't at risk. For women, doctors may recommend aspirin for those over 55 with similar risk factors to the ones mentioned for men. However, the data to support women taking aspirin for heart health is inconsistent. If a man or woman has already had a heart attack or stroke, aspirin is frequently employed to prevent redevelopment of the clot that caused the damage.

Above all, it's important to get approval from your medical provider before making a decision about aspirin. Because aspirin decreases blood clots, it also encourages bleeding. Too much blood moving in the wrong place could cause a different kind of stroke or the loss of large amounts of blood. Your doctor will look at the risks of bleeding and the potential benefits of you using aspirin for heart disease or stroke prevention and make a recommendation based on your personal health history.

While aspirin has been prescribed for more than 100 years, we have only recently discovered how it works, and why it works well for some people (those with risks) and not as well for others. This little white pill might be of great benefit for your head or your heart if you take the right amount at the right time, but for your health overall, it's critical to have your doctor on board before you start using it.

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