Updated Jan. 8, 2021
Learn more about how aspirin can help your heart and what lifestyle changes you can make to possibly decrease your risk.
What Is Aspirin?
Aspirin comes from an herbal extract found in the bark of the willow tree. In fact, this extract has been used for centuries, as far back as 3000 B.C., to relieve pain and inflammation. Greek physician Hippocrates, who is often called “The Father of Modern Medicine,” administered willow bark tea to women to help relieve the pain of childbirth around 400 B.C.
Mass production of aspirin as we know it began in 1899, and in 1974 researchers found evidence suggesting that aspirin could be used to prevent heart attacks. Around 1997, aspirin became widely accepted by the medical community as an important tool to help prevent heart disease and stroke.
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How Does Aspirin Prevent a Heart Attack or Stroke?
Aspirin may help lower your risk for a heart attack or stroke by preventing dangerous blood clots from forming. When you damage a blood vessel, usually by a cut or bruise, your body sends small cell fragments called platelets to the site of the injury. The platelets stick together, or clot, to stop the bleeding allow the injury to heal.
Plaque buildup in your arteries can put you at risk for dangerous blood clots because plaque can rupture. If a blood clot forms at the site of the rupture, it can block blood flow and lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Aspirin helps to reduce inflammation and “thins” the blood by preventing blood clots from forming. Studies have also shown that aspirin can reduce the damage to your heart during a heart attack and prevent future problems if you’ve already experienced a heart attack.
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Who Should and Should Not Take Aspirin for Heart Attack and Stroke Prevention?
Your doctor may recommend daily aspirin to lower your risk for heart attack and stroke if you have:
- Had a heart attack or stroke in the past, or are at risk for one
- Undergone angioplasty or coronary artery bypass surgery
- Peripheral artery disease, or blocked blood vessels in your legs
- Atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm problem that raises your risk for blood clots
- Coronary artery disease, or blocked blood vessels in your heart
You should only take aspirin for heart health if your doctor recommends it. Your doctor may also suggest taking aspirin with other medicines that can help prevent dangerous blood clots.
Most doctors recommend taking between 80 and 160 milligrams per day, which is less than the standard 325-milligram dose that is typically used to treat headaches, body aches and fever in adults.
Research shows that taking a lower daily dose of aspirin — such as an 81-milligram dose of baby aspirin — lowers your risk of internal bleeding and provides all the heart-healthy benefits of the standard, higher dose. Patients should not stop taking their aspirin before talking with their doctor.
It is not recommended to take aspirin for heart health if you:
- Have never had a heart attack or stroke (primary prevention)
- Have a high risk for bleeding
- Are allergic to aspirin
- Are under the age of 18
- Are pregnant
- Are about to have surgery,
It’s important to alert your doctor if you notice any signs of abnormal bleeding or unusual bruising, and let other health professionals know you are taking aspirin before undergoing any medical procedures.
What Are the Risks?
A low-dose aspirin regimen is usually well-tolerated by most people, but common side effects may include:
- Upset stomach
- Trouble sleeping
- Easy bruising, bleeding side effects
Aspirin can interact with other medications and dietary supplements, so it is very important that you tell your doctor about all prescription and over-the-counter medications that you are taking.
Will I Need to Make Other Lifestyle Changes?
In addition to taking aspirin to lower your risk for heart attack and stroke, your doctor might recommend the following lifestyle changes:
- Eat heart-healthy foods, like salmon, berries, and leafy greens
- Quit or avoid smoking
- Get regular physical activity
- Control your blood pressure
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Take your medicines as prescribed
An aspirin a day can keep the cardiologist away and provide lifesaving benefits, so talk to your doctor if you think it might be right for you.
The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine.