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Aspirin may help preserve brain function in older women with heart disease

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The same daily, low-dose aspirin that many women take to lower their risk for heart attack may have spillover benefits on their risk for developing mental decline, suggests new research from Sweden.

In the study of nearly 700 women between 70 and 92 years old, 600 were considered to be at high risk for heart disease and stroke. Of these, about 130 women were taking low-dose aspirin when the study began, and nearly 100 more were taking various other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen.

After five years, women who were taking low-dose aspirin showed less decline on a standardized test measuring brain function than women who were not on aspirin. The longer the women were taking aspirin, the more pronounced the differences. Daily aspirin use did not, however, have any bearing on the risk for developing full-blown dementia, the study showed.

Exactly how aspirin may slow cognitive decline is not fully understood, but it may enhance blood flow to the brain, concluded study authors Dr. Silke Kern and colleagues at the University of Gothenburg.

"Low-dose aspirin treatment may have a neuro-protective effect in elderly women at high cardiovascular risk," the researchers wrote.

The findings appear online Oct. 3 in the journal BMJ Open.

Aspirin may help prevent strokes, and sometimes a series of "mini-strokes" can add up to cognitive decline and even cause dementia, said Dr. Deepak Bhatt, director of the integrated cardiovascular intervention program at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "It makes sense that this could be the case, but the new study does not prove it."

"I would not start taking aspirin because of this study," Bhatt added. "This needs to be tested in a larger number of patients before we can say that aspirin has a role in preventing cognitive decline in women or men."

While the study found an association between aspirin use and mental skills, it did not reveal a cause-and-effect link.

Not everyone can or should take aspirin, Bhatt noted.

"Aspirin can cause side effects and should not be taken by people who are at risk for ulcers or bleeding," he said. "Do not take aspirin without discussing it with your doctor."

None of the women in the new study developed ulcers or major bleeds.

Still, the study authors concluded: "Longer follow-ups are needed to evaluate the long-term effect of aspirin on cognitive function and dementia."

Dr. Sam Gandy, chairman of Alzheimer's disease research and associate director of the Mount Sinai Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in New York City, said: "Aspirin has many properties that benefit the health of our blood vessels. This study shows just how large a role brain circulation plays in maintaining good cognitive function."