Aspirin: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Last week, I was talking to one of my patients about her ischemic stroke, which led her to be admitted to the hospital. I discussed that I would be prescribing a daily aspirin along with other medications to reduce her risk of recurrent stroke. She replied, “But doc! I just read on the news that aspirin is no longer recommended to prevent heart attack and stroke.” It took me a moment to realize that she was referring to the recently released guidelines for “primary prevention of cardiovascular disease.” I explained to her the rationale, benefits, risks and evidence supporting the use of aspirin for secondary stroke prophylaxis. She felt better after our detailed conversation and agreed to initiate the medication as recommended. Later that day, I read several potentially misleading headlines on major news media websites about this new guideline. The headline on CNN1 read, “Daily aspirin to prevent heart attacks no longer recommended for older adults,” while USA Today2 reported, “Don’t take an aspirin a day to prevent heart attacks and strokes.”
The guidelines issued by the ACC now recommend against routine use of aspirin for primary cardiovascular prophylaxis in adults older than 70 years. This new recommendation is based on the ASPREE trial, published in 20183. During this trial, healthy adults older than 70 years with no prior history of cardiovascular disease were randomized to receive 100 mg aspirin or placebo. The low dose aspirin lead to a significantly higher risk of major hemorrhage without a significant benefit in terms of cardiovascular event prevention. The guidelines recommend using low dose aspirin for primary prophylaxis of cardiovascular events only in adults aged 40-70 years who are at a higher risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. The guidelines no longer recommend using the 10 year estimated ASCVD risk threshold of 10%, but in fact propose a more tailored approach to primary cardiovascular prophylaxis. Patients at a high risk of cardiovascular disease and whose risk factors are not optimized despite maximal medical therapy may be candidates for prophylactic aspirin at low doses. Physicians should have a careful discussion of the individual risks and benefit of aspirin before prescribing a daily aspirin regimen to their patients. Aspirin should not be prescribed for primary prophylaxis to patients with an increased risk of hemorrhage, such as a history of gastrointestinal bleeding or thrombocytopenia.
These guidelines are obviously for patients without a prior history of a cardiovascular events such as an MI or ischemic stroke. There is unambiguous data that supports the use of aspirin for secondary cardiovascular prophylaxis. My patient from last week belonged to this category and I started our aspirin discussion with her by explaining this clear distinction. She understood the rationale for aspirin in her case and how the new guidelines did not apply to her. The news headlines are sometimes sensationalized which can render them misleading for the reader. The two news articles did in fact report that the guidelines refer to use of aspirin in healthy older adults with no history of heart disease or stroke. In today’s world of fast paced digital information, there is a tendency to just read the headlines and move on to the next thing. This can be very problematic if patients on aspirin for secondary prophylaxis stop taking their medication after reading these news headlines.
As healthcare professionals, it is our responsibility to tackle this kind of misinformation which can lead to potentially bad outcomes for our patients. One of the ways to do that is to enhance our presence on social media platforms which are increasingly becoming the major source of news and information for the public. The AHA Early Career Blogging Program is one such avenue which can help young healthcare professionals strengthen their digital and social media footprint. This also helps facilitate collaborative projects and ideas among healthcare professionals and can lead to improved patient outcomes, which is the ultimate goal in all our endeavors.
- N Engl J Med 2018; 379:1509-1518 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1805819