Friday, December 24, 2010

Week 50: The Little White Pill that Could (And Still Can!)

In case you haven't yet noticed, I love items whose genius lies in an elegant simplicity. I also love items whose benefits continue to evolve in surprising, meaningful ways. Duct tape and the iPhone are two obvious examples. I will now write about a third: aspirin. Before your eyes either glaze over or dart to that X in the top right corner of your browser, hear me out. I guarantee that by the time you finish reading this short post, you will have learned at least one new benefit of this wonder drug.

When my Dad learned I'd be writing about aspirin, he pulled from his voluminous bookshelves one relatively thin piece titled "Aspirin Therapy: Cutting the Risk of Heart Disease." He was gifted the book by our former Houston neighbor, the eminent Dr. William S. Fields, who wrote the book's foreword. Most of my research was done online (per my blog's stringent requirements), but I did leaf through the book, and particularly enjoyed this quote: "It has been more than 140 years since the first completely man-made medicine was introduced, 2,000 years since the first aspirin-like substance was used, and 78 years since aspirin itself became widely available. In all that time, no better drug than aspirin has been found for relief of pain without addiction, reduction of fever without side effects, and reduction of inflammation without serious disruption of bodily services." The book was written in 1978, before many of the most important aspirin-related discoveries were made. Yet in the final chapter, the book presciently states that "the present popularity of aspirin may just be the beginning." Countless other books and doctors have sung the praises of aspirin since its widespread adoption in the late 19th century; they have, thus far, proven correct.

Outside its use as a standard anti-inflammatory drug (like Tylenol or Advil), aspirin is most popular as a deterrent for heart attacks and strokes. Many studies have proven a reduced risk of both given a regularly taken, low dose of aspirin. The drug acts as a blood thinner, which allows blood to flow past the blockage of an artery (blocked arteries can be a key contributor to heart attacks and strokes). Doctors also now recommend taking an aspirin during or immediately following a heart attack to limit the associated damages and prevent a second heart attack from taking place. Keep that in mind as you dial 911.

But enough of what you already know. The new research on aspirin is even more positive. A recent study, published in JAMA, shows that aspirin can increase the survival rate of colorectal cancer patients. The study followed 1,300 patients, over a period of about ten years. Those who took aspirin regularly experienced mortality rates that were 30% lower than those who did not. For patients with an enzyme very specific to colorectal cancer, the figure increased to 62%! This incredible finding comes in addition to a much broader study demonstrating the preventative properties of aspirin for colorectal cancer. In the 50,000 person study, aspirin definitively lowered the rate of colorectal cancer for those who had taken it regularly over a period of many years. Yet another set of studies suggested aspirin could reduce mortality associated with esophageal cancer by 60% and lung cancer deaths by 30%.

In addition to cancer, heart attacks, strokes and minor pains, there is ongoing, cutting edge research that suggests further benefits of aspirin. In particular, aspirin's anti-inflammatory properties may allow many additional new drugs to come to market. In the same way that Tylenol can be damaging to the liver, many other drugs have not made it beyond initial testing in the FDA drug approval process due to their potential liver-harming properties. In studies done on mice, these types of drugs - taken in conjunction with aspirin - no longer damaged the liver. In other words, the aspirin was able to offset the harmful effects of these otherwise life saving drugs. This property of aspirin could also have tremendous implications for those who are either overweight or who use alcohol excessively (either can lead to permanent liver damage). While aspirin will not REVERSE liver damage, it is increasingly believed to be able to PREVENT liver damage, if taken at the right time.

For those of you who are being lulled to sleep by all the things aspirin can do for old people, listen up. If you add crushed aspirin to the water in which you place your flowers, they will wither at a slower pace. Rubbing aspirin on mosquito bites or bee stings will reduce inflammation. To dry out pimples? You guessed it, rub on some aspirin. Aspirin tablets on a car battery can give you one more start. Like I said, a wonder drug.

As always, there must be a caveat. For a very small percentage of the population, aspirin can cause internal bleeding. And taking an abundance of aspirin tablets is also probably not a good idea. Clearly any regular dosage of aspirin should be discussed with a doctor to determine if it is right for you. But my cursory research suggests that there can be substantial advantages to regular, conservative aspirin use. Not that this is an earth shattering conclusion: an estimated 40,000 tonnes are already consumed each year. It is also extremely cheap. Why? In most countries, aspirin has been a generic drug since 1919. Bayer, aspirin's original creator, was forced to give up its patent due to a war reparation decreed by the Treaty of Versailles. Moral of the story? There are consequences to losing wars.

To summarize: aspirin is cheap, proven, and readily available, with multiple medicinal and non-medicinal benefits... I guess I should add aspirin to my daily regimen of green tea, fish oil, a multivitamin, calcium, and vitamin D-3. (After I talk to my doctor, of course.)


  1. Aspirin in a car battery? Hmmmmm, that's a long shot, the only thing it might do is chemically clean some oxidizers off the lead, but not nearly enough to re-charge a dead battery, and in my life in the automotive business I never heard of this.Also most batteries today are sealed. But at 66 I'm still finding new stuff.
    Good article. Let me suggest another topic that's been one of the best inventions and used every day and taken for granted, which I think is the best functioning system in the world, and deserves a good write up. Traffic lights.

  2. Apparently, aspirin's acetylsalicylic acid and the battery's sulfuric acid may produce a charge good for one more charge ( Traffic lights are absolutely deserving of a post... unfortunately I've only got one more post left - the last one! Thanks again for reading.