In what is being viewed as one of the most important discoveries in the battle against cancer, a major review of trials and studies has revealed that long-term use of low-dose aspirin reduces the risk of developing major cancers and dying from them by around one-third.
The findings of the research, published in the Annals of Oncology journal, indicated that if everyone aged 50 to 64 took aspirin for ten years it would save 6,000 lives a year – 4,000 men and 2,000 women – in the UK alone.
Over a 20-year period, an estimated 130,357 cancer deaths could be avoided, as well as 9,473 fatal heart attacks in those who had not previously suffered heart problems.
The use of aspirin would nevertheless not be without its drawbacks, and would likely cause around 18,000 deaths over a two-decade period, mainly due to strokes and internal bleeding, the potentially fatal side-effects of long-term use of the common painkiller.
Scientists have nevertheless calculated that many more people would reap the benefits than suffer side-effects.
Professor Jack Cuzick, who led the research, said: “Whilst there are some serious side effects that can’t be ignored, taking aspirin daily looks to be the most important thing we can do to reduce cancer after stopping smoking and reducing obesity.”
Professor Cuzick, head of the Centre for Cancer Prevention at Queen Mary Hospital, University of London, said a daily dose of 75mg (one-quarter of the size of a standard 300mg aspirin tablet) is enough to help ward off a string of cancers.
And while noting that further research was needed, he believed the time had come for doctors to talk to their patients about it.
The findings of the study indicated that the biggest impact of taking the drug for ten years was in cutting rates and deaths from digestive tract cancers, with rates of bowel cancer down by 35 percent and deaths by 40 percent.
Rates of stomach and oesophageal cancer were cut by 30 percent and deaths by 35 percent and 50 percent respectively.
While aspirin had less effect on other cancers, it reportedly lowered lung and prostate cancer rates by 5 percent and 10 percent, and deaths from both by 15 percent. It was also said to reduce breast cancer rates by 10 percent and deaths by 5 percent.
Long-term, low dose aspirin use also cut heart attack risk by 18 percent, with 5 percent fewer heart attack deaths.
On the downside, while rates of serious or fatal bleeding in the gut due to the blood-thinning effects of aspirin were low under the age of 70, the risk increased sharply after that age.
Similarly, aspirin increased the risk of peptic ulcer by 30 to 60 percent, and the chances of dying from haemorrhagic stroke by 20 percent.
Professor Cuzick stressed that no one should take aspirin daily without consulting their doctor.