The study included close to 700 Swedish women aged 70 to 92, most of whom had heart disease. Those who took low-dose aspirin every day to prevent a heart attack showed a less pronounced slide in mental functioning after five years than their counterparts who did not take aspirin.
At the end of the study, tests of memory, verbal fluency and other mental capabilities showed some loss of brain power, but the decline was significantly less and occurred at a slower pace among the women who received aspirin continuously or even for a period of time compared to those who never took it. The 66 women who took the drug for all five years even saw some of their scores improve, the researchers said.
Low-dose aspirin was defined as between 75 and 160 milligrams.
Some experts aren’t surprised by the findings.
“What is good for the heart is also usually good for the brain,” said Dr. Richard Isaacson, an associate professor of clinical neurology and director of the Alzheimer’s division at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “Low-dose aspirin, a healthy diet, physical exercise on a regular basis, no smoking, and alcohol in moderation are all essential components of brain protection,” said Isaacson, who was not involved with the study.
The study, led by Silke Kern and colleagues from Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg in Molndal, Sweden, is published online in BMJ Open.
The researchers not only compared aspirin-users to non-users, they also looked at women taking other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Only aspirin-users reaped the brain benefits, the tests showed.
However, exactly how, or even if, low-dose aspirin affects mental status is far from conclusive, and the study authors said they don’t want to encourage the elderly to self-medicate with aspirin to avoid dementia. The risk of bleeding is always a possibility, they noted.
While the results indicate that aspirin may protect the brain, at least among women at high risk for a heart attack or stroke, the effects of long-term treatment aren’t known. The researchers will now track the same women for five more years.
Some U.S. experts, including Isaacson, already recommend low-dose aspirin to help reduce risk for Alzheimer’s disease and improve brain health.
“I have recommended 81 milligrams of baby aspirin for my patients with any vascular risk factors who are either at risk for developing cognitive decline or who currently have mild cognitive impairment or mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease,” said Isaacson.
He said that the benefits of daily baby aspirin typically outweigh the risks unless the person has a history of gastrointestinal bleeding.
Another expert, Dr. Sam Gandy, an associate director of the Mount Sinai Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in New York City, said the findings are absolutely plausible.
“At least some of the risk for Alzheimer’s disease is due to underlying cardiovascular disease, so inasmuch as aspirin helps protect from [heart disease], it is bound to have some benefit in reducing the risk for Alzheimer’s disease,” said Gandy. However, further studies are needed to confirm the findings, he said.