Pills to prevent disease: Does aspirin pass the test?

A recent study claims taking aspirin daily 'can significantly reduce risk of cancer'. Credit: Stephen Kelly/PA Wire

By Catherine Jones: Health Editor

Hot on the heels of the controversy over taking statins, scientists are pointing to compelling evidence that another daily pill would substantially lower the risk of disease.

This time it's aspirin, and the new review of research concludes that for people aged 50 to 65, the benefits of taking a low dose for a decade outweigh the harms by a factor of 10 to one.

But as ever, the science can't yet claim to be conclusive. It's still unclear how to decide which patients would most benefit and what size of daily dose to administer.

Preventative medicine is all about population-level risk. The analysis published today estimates if everyone in the target age range took aspirin daily:

  • 6,500 fewer people a year would die of cancer
  • 500 fewer would have a fatal heart attack
  • But 900 more people would die from aspirin's known side effects, like strokes or stomach bleeds

But what the science can't tell us is which group each of us is going to fall into: the one saved from cancer, or killed by aspirin.

So where does that leave us, as individuals?

Basically with our own set of beliefs about the value of taking medicine, plus in the hands of our GP and what his, or her, personal opinion is of using drugs to prevent diseases rather than cure them.