A new public health initiative aimed at reducing first-time heart attacks and strokes was launched in Minnesota on Thursday.
The “Ask About Aspirin” campaign encourages middle-aged and older people to talk with their doctor about taking daily aspirin, even if they have no personal history of cardiovascular problems.
“The message is straightforward,” said John Finnegan, the dean of the University of Minnesota’s school of public health, at the campaign’s launch event, which was held Thursday morning in the Mall of America rotunda.
If you’re a man or a woman aged 50 to 69, he said, “we want you to talk with you health professional to find out if an 81-milligram aspirin a day makes sense for you.”
Daily low-dose, or “baby,” aspirin is already recommended to people who have had a heart attack or stroke to prevent a repeat event, a treatment approach known as secondary prevention.
The “Ask for Aspirin” campaign is focused on primary prevention — helping people avoid their first heart attack or stroke.
That’s an important goal. Cardiovascular disease claims more than 7,500 lives annually in Minnesota, making it the state’s second-leading cause of death (behind cancer), according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
And each year, some 16,000 Minnesotans have a heart attack or stroke for the first time.
Health officials estimate that about 2,000 of those first-time events could be prevented if at-risk individuals in the targeted age group took a daily aspirin.
Aspirin is believed to help reduce that risk by keeping blood platelets from clumping together and forming blood clots.
But not everybody between the ages of 50 and 69 is a candidate for daily aspirin therapy, which is not harm-free.
Long-term use of aspirin carries a low but real risk of potentially dangerous bleeding in the stomach and brain.
That’s why the emphasis in the “Ask for Aspirin” campaign is on “Ask,” as in ask your doctor. No one should start taking aspirin without having their physician assess both their risk of having a heart attack or stroke and their risk of being harmed by the aspirin.
And age alone does not place individuals in the “at-risk” category for a heart attack or stroke.
Weighing risks and benefits
Earlier this year, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) updated its recommendations for the use of aspirin to prevent cardiovascular disease. They recommended low-dose daily aspirin for people aged 50 to 69, but only for those who have at least a 10 percent or greater risk of having a heart attack or stroke within the next 10 years.
People in their 60s are at greater risk of aspirin-related bleeding, so weighing the risks and benefits of daily aspirin is even more important in that age group, the task force added.
They also said there is not enough information to recommend regular aspirin use to people under the age of 50 or over the age of 69.
Some people should not take daily aspirin even if they do have an elevated risk of having a first-time heart attack or stroke within the next 10 years. These include individuals who have uncontrolled high blood pressure or a history of gastrointestinal bleeding or ulcers. It also includes people who are allergic to aspirin or who are already taking certain medications, such as blood thinners, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and omega-3 supplements.
Of course, taking aspirin is not the only way to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Eating a healthy diet, engaging in regular exercise, not smoking and other healthy lifestyle behaviors are also important preventive strategies.
Indeed, taking an aspirin daily should not be considered a substitute for adopting healthy habits, the experts at Thursday’s event stressed.
As the American Heart Association notes on its website, lifestyle is “your best defense against heart attack and stroke.”
FMI: You’ll find more information about “Ask About Aspirin” initiative at its website, which is being hosted by the Minnesota Heart Health Program at the University of Minnesota. The initiative has many partners, including the Minnesota Department of Health, the Minnesota Medical Association and the Minnesota chapter of the American Heart Association. It’s being funded by the Fred C. and Katherine B. Andersen Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.