New research suggests that aspirin use may lower the risk of colon cancer.

The earliest forms of aspirin were discovered centuries ago. Originally, aspirin was used as a pain reliever. In 1989, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) published the results of the Physician’s Health Study, which found that aspirin also helped prevent heart attacks. Now, nearly 25 years later, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital have published new research suggesting that aspirin may have another use – lowering the risk of colon cancer.

Using data from the Women’s Health Study, a team of researchers led by Dr. Nancy Cook, BWH Division of Preventive Medicine, analyzed data collected from roughly 40,000 women aged 45 years or older. Approximately half of the women studied received low-dose (100 mg) aspirin every other day for ten years. The other half of the study participants received a placebo or inactive pill. Researchers continued to gather data from women who agreed to follow up for 18 years. At the end of the ten-year study period, there was no difference between the two groups in terms of overall cancer rates. However, at the end of the 18-year follow-up period, those women who had taken low-dose aspirin had a 21 percent lower rate of colorectal cancer versus those who had taken the placebo. The study did not find any differences in the occurrence of other cancer types or cancer deaths between the two groups.

While the study results are promising, the researchers caution that aspirin use must be considered in view of the risks. Aspirin, even at low doses, can cause serious gastrointestinal bleeding and peptic ulcers. As a result, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force currently recommends aspirin be used to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in certain age groups of men and women only when the potential benefit outweighs potential harm. Other patients that may benefit from taking aspirin include those with a family history of colon cancer or those who have had colon polyps.

It’s important to talk to your primary care physician before taking aspirin for any reason. He or she can help you evaluate whether aspirin therapy is appropriate for you given your health history.

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– Jamie R.

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