I want to tell you that for a penny a day and no prescription or background check, you can carry in your pocket a pill that will cure heart disease, stroke, cancer, dementia, hangovers, depression, infertility, and more.
Ok, so that's absurd. Very little in science—and least of all medical science—is so certain. But if any drug comes close to fulfilling the aspirations of that hypothetical wonder drug, it's aspirin, or acetylsalicylic acid. And while it's not exactly a cure for anything, it does offer a good bit of insurance.
The fact that aspirin has been around in its current pop-a-pill form since 1899 is, paradoxically, a big reason why we don't have clear answers on the drug's full promise. Because the drug is so widely and cheaply available, Big Pharma doesn't stand to pocket EpiPen-like profits by discovering new uses. As a result, researchers often have a harder time funding expensive clinical trials.
But the science we do have indicates that the pill is mighty. In one recent analysis published in the journal PLOS One, researchers from the University of Southern California estimated that if every high-risk American over the age of 50 took just one low-dose aspirin a day, we'd significantly extend the years of quality life between now and 2036, adding 900,000 people to the population and reducing healthcare costs by $692 billion. And right now, a massive trial is underway in Australia to determine whether the drug could make old age better by dampening the inflammation that contributes blindness, deafness, and dementia.
Of course, before you start popping pills, remember that all drugs are chemicals that can affect your body in unintended ways. One of aspirin's more nefarious downsides is that it can increase the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding. But in a recent study analysis, researchers calculated that the risk panned out to be one death and one stroke per 1,000 people who took aspirin for ten years—a number far less than the number of deaths and strokes the drug likely prevented. The point is: Check with your doctor before you start any drug regime.
As for the potential benefits, here's what science has told us thus far.
It may help your body destroy cancer cells.
In recent years, numerous studies have shown that aspirin may increase the lifespan of cancer patients, especially those with gastrointestinal cancers. A study of 1,400 people presented at the European Society for Medical Oncology found that the drug nearly doubled survival times in people with stomach, esophageal, or colon cancer. Martine Frouws, the Leiden University Medical Center doctor who coordinated the study, says researchers aren't certain how aspirin fights cancer, but they believe that it may help the immune system find the disease. "We think aspirin removes a cloak of blood platelets from tumor cells and reveals them to immune system, which clears them out," she says.
Of course, she's cautious about the results: "It's not possible to conclude anything yet. All of this needs to be proven in randomized controlled trials."
It can make wombs more hospitable.
The drug has shown promise in reducing the risk of both late fetal death and pre-term birth, and for increasing fertility. A University of Utah study of 1,228 women who had miscarried in the prior year found that those who took the equivalent of one low-dose aspirin (81 milligrams) a day were 17 percent more likely to get pregnant and 20 percent more likely to have a successful birth than women who didn't take aspirin. Experts theorize that by reducing inflammation and boosting blood flow, aspirin helps create an environment where embryos can implant and flourish.
The study authors stopped short of recommending aspirin as a fertility treatment, but the study's co-author, Robert Silver, an OB-GYN professor at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center, does point to another one of the pill's powers: "The best proven use of aspirin [in pregnancy] is to lower the risk of pre-eclampsia"—a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and organ damage—in high-risk patients, he says.
It may help you survive flu season without getting sick.
Building on prior evidence of aspirin's antiviral effects, a 2016 lab test published in the journal Influenza and Other Respiratory Viruses found our hero to be "highly effective" against influenza A H1N1 and some of the major viruses that cause the common cold. The bad news: This research took place not in human bodies, but in petri dishes. But it's the type of work that often progresses to rats and, eventually people. And the study's authors are optimistic. They hypothesize that the drug may work in people by making it harder for viruses to reproduce in human cells.
It fights depression.
Experts are learning that inflammation may be a root cause of many mental disorders, including depression. So it makes sense that an anti-inflammatory agent like aspirin might help. In one recent study, rodents that were genetically predisposed to depression-like symptoms became downright cheerful when given low doses of aspirin for three weeks. Scans revealed higher levels of the mood-regulating chemical serotonin in their brains, and they started swimming more quickly when thrown into water—indicating what can only be interpreted as a real zest for their shitty lab-rat lives.
Randall Stafford, a professor of medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine, says the findings reinforce the ways that inflammation-fighting habits—from exercise to taking aspirin—could have a positive impact on a wide range of health problems. Inflammation and depression have a "complex relationship," Stafford adds. "Inflammation makes depression more likely, but depression itself may lead to unfavorable lifestyle changes that consequently increase inflammation." Aspirin can help break the cycle. In other words, it may encourage you to swim when you might otherwise sink.