Serious Side Effects From Low Dose Aspirin

By Kim Smiley

A recent study determined that the risks associated with regular use of low dose aspirin may outweigh the benefits for many patients. The researchers determined that regular aspirin users were 10 percent less likely to have a heart event and 20 percent less likely to have a nonfatal heart attack.  These statistics sound good except that regular aspirin users are also around 30 percent more likely to have serious gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding.  The overall risk of death was the same for both patients who regularly used aspirin and those who did not.

This study looked at nine randomized studies of aspirin use and included more than 100,000 patients.  The study only included patients who had not had a heart attack or stroke and involved giving participants either an aspirin or a placebo to see the benefits of regular doses of aspirin.

These findings have the potential to affect many people since nearly a third of middle-age Americans take a low dose aspirin regularly.  Benefits from aspirin seem to outweigh the risks for people who have a history of heart attacks, but this study calls into question the benefits for patients who are hoping to prevent their first heart attack or stroke.

This issue can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, an intuitive, visual form of root cause analysis.  In this example, the safety goal is the main goal that would be considered because of the higher risk of GI bleeding.  The higher risk of bleeding is caused by the fact that patients are taking aspirin regularly and that GI bleeding is a known side effect of aspirin.  People take aspirin because it has been shown to reduce the likelihood of blood clots.  Reducing blood clots will in turn reduce the risk of heart attacks and stroke since blood clots have the potential to block flow to the brain or heart.

The conclusion that the study draws is that there is no one size fits all solution to the question of whether patients should regularly take low dose aspirin.  The risks and potential benefits need to be determined on a case by case basis by the patient’s physician.  For an individual with a strong family history of heart disease, the benefits may very well outweigh the risk of GI bleeding, but for others the use of aspirin may not be worth the risk.

To view a high level Cause Map of this issue, click on “Download PDF” above.