Jeremy Laurance: Humble painkiller that can protect you from everything

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The Independent Online

Aspirin is the original wonder drug. More than a century after its discovery, new uses for the humble painkiller – still the most widely consumed medicine in the world – continue to emerge.

The disclosure that it can halve deaths from breast cancer in women who have received early treatment for the disease will add to its reputation.

Heart disease, stroke, cancer, dementia, diabetes, deep vein thrombosis – you name it and aspirin can protect you from it. Evidence suggests that regular use of aspirin for at least five years reduces the risk of bowel cancer by 40 per cent. It is an established preventive treatment for people at high risk of a heart attack or stroke and is also thought to ward off many other conditions.

For the first 70 years of its existence, aspirin was known only as a painkiller, the ubiquitous drug kept in handbags and medicine cabinets the world over to ward off headaches, period pains and hangovers. It became the world's best-selling drug.

But in 1971, as the market for aspirin was beginning to wane in the face of competition from the newer painkillers such as paracetamol, doctors began to appreciate that aspirin was more than just a painkiller. In 1997, the centenary of aspirin's synthesis, more than 3,000 scientific papers were published on the drug, confirming the undiminished interest in one of medicine's greatest discoveries.

So why are we not all taking it? Because it is not without drawbacks. In about 6 per cent of people, it causes indigestion, nausea and sometimes bleeding. This is the principal reason why doctors are reluctant to recommend its daily use, except in people at increased risk of heart attack or stroke. But it remains one of medicines most valuable treatments.