Research over the last 30 years has shown that aspirin helps prevent heart attack, stroke, and colon cancer. There's new evidence that aspirin may help control migraine headaches, Alzheimer's disease, and cataracts. Medical experts say we haven't even begun to realize the potential of the familiar white pills, which cost mere pennies apiece.
No drug is completely safe, and aspirin is no exception. It can irritate the stomach's delicate lining, causing heartburn, ulcers, and internal bleeding. In rare cases, aspirin can lead to bleeding in the brain, and doctors also think aspirin may contribute to Reye's syndrome, a childhood disorder characterized by brain and liver damage. Aspirin is a blood thinner and can worsen bleeding during surgery and childbirth.
One bottom line assessment: If it were invented today, aspirin would probably have to be prescribed by a doctor.
Although other over-the-counter pain-killers (like ibuprofen and acetaminophen) can relieve pain with fewer side effects, only aspirin appears to have long-term cardiovascular and anticancer benefits.
But aspirin also suffers from an identity crisis.
Because of the Reye's syndrome concern, most younger adults have been raised on acetaminophen (Tylenol is the most common brand).
"My impression is there's a generation of individuals who have grown up assuming that other compounds have completely replaced aspirin," says Dr. Carl J. Pepine, codirector of the division of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Florida. "Ask a flight attendant for an aspirin and she may bring you Tylenol. We're trying to educate people that the simple aspirin is worth keeping around for reasons that could save their lives."