If you're one of many Americans that take a daily aspirin to prevent heart attacks and strokes, you might have been confused by recent changes to the guidelines for this medication. Earlier this year, the American Heart Association (AHA) announced that people should avoid a daily aspirin unless a doctor prescribes it.
Wait, what? Does that mean if you've been taking a daily aspirin to protect your heart health for years that you should just suddenly stop? Not so fast! According to experts, it all depends on whether the new daily aspirin guidelines even apply to you in the first place. But before you can learn what the new daily aspirin guidelines mean for you, it's crucial that you understand the difference between primary prevention and secondary prevention of cardiac events.
According to experts, primary prevention means that you've never had any heart-related events or conditions but are actively trying to prevent those things from happening. "We're talking about healthy people who don't have known heart disease or stroke, who might have been considering or already taking an aspirin to prevent that heart attack or stroke in the first place," said Dr. Erin Michos, one of the writers of the new guidelines, in an AHA press release. If this sounds like you, then the new guideline change applies to you. In other words, you should not be taking a daily aspirin to protect your heart health in this case. Here's why: Recent research has found that taking a daily aspirin for primary prevention might actually cause more harm than good. One particularly alarming study suggested this practice could lead to "significant" internal bleeding for these folks, both in the gastrointestinal tract and the brain.
Unlike primary prevention, secondary prevention means that you have had a heart-related event or condition in the past — including a heart attack, stroke, or any condition requiring stents or cardiac bypass surgery — and you're trying to prevent that from ever happening again. If this sounds like you, then the new guideline change does not apply to you. You should continue taking daily aspirin if it's been prescribed by your doctor. For folks who already have cardiovascular disease, the benefits of a daily low-dose aspirin have been well-documented and can help protect you from another scary cardiac event. (And, of course, you should follow any other additional instructions from your doctor about secondary prevention as well!)
Remember: When in doubt, always talk to your doctor before making any changes to your daily medication routine.