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Why Is Aspirin Such A Wonder Drug?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Heart disease, stroke, and now add melanoma to the list of aspirin's potential health benefits. New research shows that the cheap white pill taken by millions of Americans to prevent heart problems may protect against the deadliest form of skin cancer.

What is it about aspirin? And should we all be taking it daily?

Deborah Klein, Pharm.D., is the clinical pharmacy manager at United Hospital in St. Paul.

"It must be related to its mechanism. Most of it is either related to anti-inflammatory, or it affects platelets in the way they aggregate or clump," Klein said.

Aspirin prevents blood vessels from being inflamed, and keeping the platelets from clumping helps keep the blood flowing. That prevents heart attacks and strokes. But inflammation appears to be a cause for some types of cancers.

The new study in the journal Cancer looked at nearly 60,000 women over the age fifty. Overall, women who took aspirin daily had a 21-percent lower chance of getting melanoma. The longer women took aspirin, the better the results: Women who took an aspirin a day for five years or longer were 30-percent less likely to get melanoma.

Researchers tried to control for other risk factors, like using sunscreen. But like most of the cancer studies that show hope for using aspirin, there was a correlation, not causation.

"There's probably some relation, but we don't know for sure," said Klein.

It is difficult to design blind studies that isolate aspirin as the only difference, because there are so many different factors that can contribute to people developing cancer.

"There's a lot of literature to support taking aspirin if you've had a heart attack. There are some patients with high enough risk. They should take it to prevent a heart attack," she said.

But in some cases the risk may outweigh the benefit. Because aspirin keeps blood from clotting, daily use can cause a risk for gastrointestinal bleeding. According to Klein, that's the main reason why doctors don't recommend that everyone takes it daily.

The government recommends that women older than 55 and men older than 45 talk to their doctors about taking daily aspirin to prevent heart attacks.

People with a family history of heart problems, or now melanoma, should also talk with their doctors.

Could there be a day when aspirin is recommended like a daily vitamin?

"It could. I think the only risk factor is the bleeding issue. Because of that, it goes in the 'Make Sure You Ask Your Doctor' file," Klein said.

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