Aspirin may be the ultimate wonder drug: a pain reliever that only helps prevent heart attacks, strokes, and some forms of cancer, but may even help stave off Alzheimer’s disease, researchers report.
The low-dose aspirin millions of American pop daily to ward off heart attacks and strokes may also protect memory and mental function in older adults, at a cost of just two cents per pill, according to a new study published in BMJ Open. The study adds to earlier research suggesting that taking baby aspirin daily may cut risk for Alzheimer’s by up to 55 percent, reports the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation.
A cheap, over-the-counter medicine to guard against memory loss could be a groundbreaking discovery, given that about 25 percent of Americans ages 70 and older suffer from dementia (memory-robbing disorders like Alzheimer’s disease) or cognitive impairment, the earliest sign of the disease, according to a recent Mayo Clinic study published in Neurology.
Here’s a closer look at the new research.
The BMJ researchers tracked the brain health of 681 Swedish women ages 70 to 92. At the start of study, none of the women suffered from dementia, but 95 percent were at high risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD). All of the women were given a battery of memory and cognitive tests known as the mini-mental state exam.
When the exam was repeated five years later, scores fell, on average. However, women who had consistently taken low-dose aspirin during the study actually increased their scores, compared to never-users. The study didn’t find any brain benefit in women who regularly took other non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen.
While there were no differences in dementia rates in the two groups, the strikingly higher scores on the memory and cognitive tests among aspirin users lead the researchers to report, “Our study suggests a neuroprotective effect of aspirin, at least for elderly women at high cardiovascular risk. Longer follow-ups are needed to evaluate the long-term effect of aspirin on cognitive function and dementia.”
Several earlier studies have looked at the impact of NSAIDs on Alzheimer’s disease (AD) risk, with contradictory results. Population-based observational studies have generally found lower risk for AD among NSAID users, while randomized clinical trials have mostly found no benefit.
However, few studies have looked specifically at aspirin, even though it’s the most commonly used medication in the world, with more than 100 billion pills swallowed annually. The BMJ study was the first to examine the effects of low-doses (75 to 160 milligrams daily) on older women at high risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD), even though aspirin is the leading therapy prescribed to ward off heart attacks and strokes in at-risk patients.
The new study is important because aspirin has a unique benefit not provided by other NSAIDs: It thins the blood, thus reducing risk for clots that can trigger a heart attack or ischemic stroke (those caused by blood clots—the most common type of stroke). In addition, the little white pills combat chronic inflammation, which has recently been shown to spark heart attacks, points out Amy Doneen, ARNP, medical director of the Heart Attack & Stroke Prevention Center in Spokane, Washington.
The idea behind aspirin-as-memory-booster is sound. For people with CVD, protecting against blood clots with daily aspirin therapy is crucial, explains Doneen. “Most people don’t know that heart attacks have the same cause as ischemic strokes: Plaque inside the artery wall ruptures, which can lead to the formation of a clot that obstructs the flow of blood.”
During an ischemic stroke, loss of oxygen and nutrients to part of the brain causes cells to die. That’s why strokes interfere with memory, speech and movement—and rank as the leading cause of disability. But people who have never experienced stroke symptoms can also suffer from memory problems, adds Doneen. “Even very small clots that don’t cause any obvious symptoms can cause progressive impairment and loss of memory.”
A Harvard study revealed that that so-called “silent strokes,” or strokes that occur without any symptoms, are related to cognitive decline. Other research from Boston University found that 11 percent of middle-aged participants had experienced a silent stroke and associated brain damage. Vascular dementia—an Alzheimer’s-like disorder—frequently results from a series of small, frequently silent strokes that gradually steal the person’s memory.
Some neurologists, including Dr. Richard Isaacson, an associate professor of clinical neurology and director of the Alzheimer's division at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, advise low-dose aspirin to reduce risk for Alzheimer’s disease. "I have recommended 81 milligrams of baby aspirin for my patients with any vascular risk factors who are either at risk for developing cognitive decline or who currently have mild cognitive impairment or mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease," Dr. Isaacson told US News and World Report.
However, it’s important to realize that the OTC pills can have a downside. Risks include GI bleeding, cautions Doneen. Your medical provider can help you decide if daily low-dose aspirin makes sense for you, based on your risk factors and medical conditions. There’s also a lot you can do on your own to keep your brain sharp, including regular exercise, improving your diet, shunning tobacco and secondhand smoke, and maintaining an active social life.
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