Aspirin may fight cancer, Alzheimer's

PEOPLE'S PHARMACY

April 19, 1994|By Joe Graedon and Dr. Teresa Graedon | Joe Graedon and Dr. Teresa Graedon,King Features Syndicate

You might think that a drug that has been around for nearly 100 years would hold no surprises. But new discoveries about aspirin never fail to amaze us.

Although many people have turned to other drugs like Tylenol or Advil for pain relief, recently published research suggests that aspirin -- the cheapest drug in the pharmacy -- may help to prevent some of the most common cancers. In addition, tantalizing preliminary reports hint that aspirin or similar anti-inflammatory agents such as Indocin could help delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

If aspirin cost $3 a tablet and were available only by prescription, it would doubtless be highly prized and widely prescribed. But at less than a penny a pill, this over-the-counter remedy hardly gets any respect.

A major international study has shown that when half an aspirin is taken within the first four hours of chest pain, heart attack survival is improved by 25 percent.

Despite this astounding discovery, the Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved aspirin for acute heart attack treatment. A recent survey of British physicians showed that only one-fifth of the patients they admitted to the hospital with suspected heart attacks were given aspirin.

It took almost 40 years for the medical community to recognize that regular low-dose aspirin as a preventive measure could reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Let's hope that it won't take so long for doctors to discover the benefits of aspirin against cancer.

Numerous animal studies and epidemiological reports have shown that aspirin may lower the risk of colorectal cancer by at least 50 percent. Other digestive tract cancers (stomach and esophagus) could also be reduced.

In addition, recent epidemiology suggests that aspirin might have a favorable impact on the risk of lung and breast cancers as well.

As exciting as this research is, we are even more intrigued by the notion that aspirin and other anti-inflammatory agents may delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Investigators have speculated that this brain deterioration may start as an inflammatory process.

Canadian researchers Patrick and Edith McGeer noted that few people with rheumatoid arthritis developed senile dementia and speculated that use of aspirin might play a role.

Now research published in the journal Neurology shows that people who take anti-inflammatory drugs develop Alzheimer's disease much later than their twins. Although preliminary, this research is quite compelling.

Despite the promise held out by these new discoveries, no one should start a lifelong regimen of aspirin without medical supervision. Many people should never take aspirin because of allergy, asthma or stomach sensitivity.

Information on the label of this nonprescription drug is woefully inadequate.

We have prepared a "Guide to Key Aspirin Information" for our readers. It discusses recommended doses for various uses, precautions and side effects.

Interactions with other drugs such as Capoten, Coumadin, DiaBeta, Lasix and Vasotec are described. For a copy, please send $2 with a long (No. 10) stamped, self-addressed envelope to Graedons' People's Pharmacy, No. A-81, P.O. Box 52027, Durham, N.C. 27717-2027.

For a drug so old and so cheap, aspirin continues to amaze us with its versatility and effectiveness.

My boyfriend has indigestion almost every day. He uses baking soda as a cheap antacid whenever he feels uncomfortable -- two or three times a day. I worry that he could get into trouble, but he laughs it off. Is this dangerous?

For one thing, baking soda is high in sodium (the only ingredient is sodium bicarbonate). Although this is an inexpensive and time-honored antacid, it could be a problem for someone susceptible to high blood pressure. Too much bicarbonate might also upset the acid/base balance in his body.

From your description, he is overdosing. Anyone with that much indigestion should see a physician for a workup.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Dr. Teresa Graedon is a medical anthropologist and nutrition expert.

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