We shouldn’t take fright at the prospect of an aspirin a day

 

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It is the pill for almost every ill. We have known for well over a decade that aspirin prevented some types of cancer (and may even help treat them) as well as diabetes, dementia, pregnancy complications and, of course, pain. It is the most versatile drug in the pharmacy.

So why are we not all taking it? Because scientists have been uncertain whether its benefits outweighed its drawbacks. Aspirin irritates the gut lining – causing, in some people, bleeding and peptic ulcers. Rarely, this can be fatal.

Today’s study from Cancer Research UK appears to resolve the dilemma. Aspirin cuts deaths from at least three common cancers by up to half – a sizeable gain – while the risk of a life-threatening stomach bleed is “very low”. As the lead researcher, Professor Jack Cuzick, put it at today’s press conference: “It is a good bet.”

Within hours, however, Cancer Research UK was rowing back from this position. Dr Julie Sharp, its head of health information, warned that “important questions need to be answered” before it could be recommended, including what was the best dose, how long it should be taken and what test to use to determine who is likely to suffer side effects.

Back to square one, then. The only beneficiaries from the latest study look likely to be other scientists in search of research grants.

Is Cancer Research UK fearful of being seen to promote the medicalisation of society? The row over statins – recommended by Nice for millions more adults last month – has stirred anxieties that we are seeking medical fixes for unhealthy lifestyles. Of course, we should stop smoking, eat better and exercise more. But is prescribing a daily statin or aspirin qualitatively different from vaccinating healthy people?

It depends what you think medicine is for – treating the sick or keeping people healthy. The answer should be: both.

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