Can Aspirin Reduce Brain Decline?

By: Dr. Pascale Michelon

Daily aspirin therapy may lower your risk of heart attack. Could an aspirin a day also help  slow down brain decline? That may be the case for elderly women at high risk of cardiovascular disease.

In a new Swedish study, researchers followed for five years 681 women between the ages of 70 to 92 who were at high risk for heart disease and stroke.
Both at the beginning and at the end of the study, the women were given a battery of tests to measure their physical  and  intellectual health (including tests on verbal fluency and memory) as well as dementia (using the mini mental state exam or MMSE).
When the study began, 129 women were taking a low dose of aspirin (75 to 160 mg) every day to protect against a heart attack or stroke. Out of these 129 women, only 66 took aspirin daily for the entire five years.

On average, the MMSE score was lower for all the participants after five years, but this decline was significantly smaller in the 66 women who had taken aspirin every day over the entire period.
Compared with participants who had not taken aspirin at all, those who did for all 5 years increased their MMSE score, while those who had taken aspirin at some point, registered only slight falls in MMSE score.
The results stayed the same after taking into account age, genetic factors, and the cardiovascular risk score. The tests for verbal ability and memory speed showed similar results but the findings were not statistically significant.

There were no differences in the rate at which the women developed dementia.

In sum
Aspirin may slow changes in cognitive ability in women at high risk of a heart attack or stroke.
This is an interesting insight into the importance of cardiovascular health on cognition. However this was an observational study and the number of participants was rather small.

The results showed that aspirin made no difference to the rate at which the women developed dementia. This converge with negative results of previous studies investigating the potential effect of drugs like aspirin on dementia rate.

As the authors of the study warn, this is not enough evidence to start self-medicating with aspirin to try to stave off cognitive decline. Importantly, we do not know the long term risks of taking aspirin every day. Potential ulcers and serious bleeding may outweigh the small cognitive benefits observed so far.

References: Kern, S.. et al. (2012). Does low-dose acetylsalicylic acid prevent cognitive decline in women with high cardiovascular risk? A 5-year follow-up of a non-demented population-based cohort of Swedish elderly women. BMJ Open 2012;2:e001288 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2012-001288.

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