One of the world's oldest and most popular pain killers, aspirin, has recently been shown to decrease the risk for a number of diseases, including stroke and heart attack. Now, according to the December 2002 issue of the Mayo Clinic Health Letter, we can add decreased risk of several cancers to its success story.

The active ingredient in aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid, was first successfully synthesized more than 100 years ago in 1897 by German chemist Felix Hoffmann, who was trying to find a better form of the pain killer salicylic acid for his father, a rheumatoid arthritis sufferer. Hoffmann's discovery was popular because aspirin was much easier on the stomach than salicylic acid.

Members of the aspirin family had been in use since the 5th century B.C. The Greek physician, Hippocrates, described a bitter powder extracted from willow bark that could ease aches and pains and reduce fevers. Willow bark is a natural source of salicylic acid.

Today, while many other pain killers and anti-inflammatory drugs are now available, none can match aspirin's versatility or safety. In addition to its traditional uses, aspirin is now known to reduce the tendency of blood to clot, thus lowering the risks of heart attack and stroke. Scientists have not discovered exactly how aspirin reduces cancer risk, but they think that aspirin may limit the production of prostaglandins, hormone-like substances in the body that have been implicated in the growth of cancerous tumors.

The current complete list of aspirin's benefits, according to the Mayo Clinic, includes:
  • Reducing the risk of heart attacks. A study of 22,000 physicians published in 1989 showed a 44 percent decrease in heart attacks among those who took aspirin every other day.
  • Reducing the risk of stroke in people at high risk for stroke.
  • Reducing the risk of colon cancer. A 1995 study found that people who took aspirin daily were about half as likely to develop colon cancer.
  • Reducing the risk of developing cancers of the esophagus, stomach, rectum, prostate and pancreas.
It is recommended that you speak with your doctor before deciding to take an aspirin a day. While taking aspirin has many benefits, some people should avoid the drug because of potential side effects or other medical conditions.

Reviewed by: Robert G. Lerner, M.D..