It’s a rare household that doesn’t have a bottle of aspirin in the medicine cabinet. Estimates indicate Americans consume about 50 million aspirin tablets every day … that’s more than 15 billion little white pills a year!
It was over a hundred years ago, in 1899, that aspirin was first distributed in powdered form to physicians. Two years earlier, in 1897, Felix Hoffman, a German chemist with the Bayer Company, produced a stable form of acetylsalicylic acid. The compound was named aspirin.
Hoffman had been searching for a treatment for his father’s arthritic pain at the time. As one who would never dream of traveling around without aspirin handy, I take my hat off to Mr. Hoffman.
The true origins of this drug go back much further. Willow bark, the precursor to modern-day aspirin has been used for centuries to lower fevers and reduce pain. Historical records tell us Chinese healers prescribed it in 500 B.C. The ancient Greek physician Dioscorides gave willow bark to his patients for inflammation during the first century.
It wasn’t until the early 1970s, that the medical world began to understand how aspirin works. Scientists discovered it inhibits the production of chemicals, called prostaglandins, that are involved in inflammations.
Another theory was put forth in 1992, by Dr. Tony Yaksh, a professor of anesthesiology at University of California, San Diego. He and a colleague discovered that aspirin-type drugs help dampen pain sensations by preventing nerve activation in the spinal cord and possibly within the brain. After all this time, it seems scientists are still working to unlock the secrets of aspirin.
In the 1980s the use of aspirin was expanded beyond simple pain relief to that of a potential lifesaver. Aspirin was approved by the FDA for both the prevention of recurrent stroke in men and for reducing the risk of recurrent heart attacks.
New research has shown that women can benefit from an aspirin regimen. Since 1980, aspirin was only approved for the prevention of stroke in men after a transient ischemic attack (known as a TIA) or ministroke. Now, however, it appears females as well as males can also benefit from an aspirin regimen in preventing a stroke after a TIA.
Women are hit particularly hard by stroke. The disease strikes an estimated 228,000 women and leaves thousands disabled each year. More women die from stroke than men, and for women older than 55, the incidence of stroke more than doubles with each successive decade. Aspirin may be an important part of a preventive regimen when used as directed by a physician.
More recent tests have led the FDA to approve lower doses of aspirin to reduce the risk of recurrent heart attack and stroke. This research indicates lower doses of aspirin are as effective as higher doses and may result in fewer side effects. This supports the trend of many physicians who are recommending low-dose aspirin for their patients.
For someone having a heart attack, aspirin may be one of the first and best lines of defense. Many paramedic teams now carry aspirin in the ambulance and hospitals give aspirin in the emergency room to patients experiencing symptoms of a heart attack.
Research continues to explore aspirin’s possible role in the prevention of colon and esophageal cancers and other diseases. Beyond that, aspirin is also being used to reduce the risk of some problem pregnancies and may have a future role in the prevention of cataracts and migraine headaches.
But, there’s more. Aspirin may help stave off certain forms of senility. Vascular or multi-infarct dementia is caused by lots of little blood clots in the brain and is more common than previously believed. Aspirin may help prevent vascular dementia. It keeps blood from clotting, improves flow, and has helped people do better on tests of thinking ability.
It’s easy to see why aspirin as been called a true “wonder drug.” The next time you open your medicine cabinet, remember Mr. Hoffman’s father.