An aspirin a day can keep a heart attack at bay

FAU researcher is the first to discover the benefits of aspirin in treating and preventing cardiovascular disease.


Photo illustration by Patrick Martin

Bibi Patel, Contributing Writer

Through six large-scale randomized trials with a total of 90,000 participants, Charles Hennekens was the first to discover the benefits of aspirin therapy for the treatment and prevention of heart attacks and strokes.

Senior academic advisor to the dean of FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, Hennekens is ranked No. 81 on Science Heroes’ Most Saved Lives list for saving over 1 million lives with his research on aspirin therapy for heart disease.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a prescription-based aspirin to be taken once a day for the treatment and prevention of cardiovascular disease September 2015, currently available in pharmacies.

The long-term use of any over the counter drug should be under the care of the health care provider, which is why I applaud the FDA approving this prescription drug because it puts it under the care of the doctor,” Hennekens said.

The reasoning behind this stems from the fact that doctors are able to weigh the risks of getting a heart attack or stroke to the risks of major bleeding, a possible side effect of aspirin.

He then added that the only time it would be a good idea for individuals to take prescribed aspirin is if they’re having a heart attack. His research demonstrated that the drug could reduce mortality by 23 percent.

Hennekens interest in aspirin began with a personal experience.

I think I was motivated to go into this field by the sudden death of my father when I had just turned the age 17 so I was trying to find something that would benefit people: Preventing heart attacks,” he said.

Hennekens’ research was based on the research done by Nobel Prize winner John Vane, who showed that small amounts of aspirin stop platelets in the blood from sticking together.

According to Hennekens, this effect prevents blood platelets from forming blood clots, which are a leading cause of heart attacks. The results show that aspirin could be the key to preventing a heart attack.

Hennekens served as the principal investigator for two of the six large-scale randomized trials — the Physician’s Health Study and the Women’s Health Study.

The Physician’s Health Study was the first to show that aspirin was effective in reducing the risk of a first heart attack, according to a news release.

According to the final results of the study, the risk of having an attack dropped to 44 percent.

Hennekens was also one of the 22,017 male physicians that were selected to serve as participants of the study.

The participants were either given aspirin to take daily, or a placebo for a period of five years. The reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease was measured by testing for atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of plaque inside the arteries.

“I thought it was from a perspective of the 22,071 dedicated, conscientious physicians who were in the trial and remained blinded and faithfully took their pills, over 90 percent of them took it for five years regardless of what they were signed to. I thought it was the least I could do but to be a randomized subject,” Hennekens said.

He then jokingly added how he thought he was one of the participants taking regular aspirin because he would bleed after shaving, but it turned out he was taking the placebo.

The Women’s Health Study, which involved 40,000 female participants, showed similar results and was also the first study to demonstrate that aspirin reduces the risk of a first stroke.

However, both of these studies involved low-risk participants, with only 5,000 of them having a 10 percent risk of cardiovascular disease, making it difficult to determine if the data was conclusive.

To combat this, there are several ongoing trials:

  • ARRIVE trial for individuals with a 15 percent risk of a first heart attack
  • ASCENT trial for diabetics
  • ASPREE trial for elderly patients

Hennekens gave the Connor Lecture at the American Heart Association  in 1997 where he was asked, “What do you think the future will hold with cardiovascular disease?”

He said his answer today is the same as it was then: “Look at the young people today, our FAU students, they tend to be smoking more, they are more obese, they are less physically active than their parents were. They already have more type 2 diabetes than their parents did.”

“If these habits continue into middle age, they will become the first generation to have higher risks of heart attacks and strokes than their parents did since the 1950s.”

Bibi Patel is a contributing writer with the University Press. To contact her on this or other stories, she can be reached at [email protected].