Medical studies going back more than 30 years have concluded that a low-dose (81-mg) daily aspirin for someone who has already had a heart attack cuts the chances of another heart attack or stroke by approximately 25%. As a result, many physicians and medical organizations, such as the American Heart Association (AHA), figured that the same treatment for someone who has not had a heart attack but is of moderate risk (due, for example, to elevated cholesterol and/or high blood pressure) would benefit as well.
But now, as the media reported in late 2018, a connected group of studies has found that there appears to be no heart benefit from aspirin among moderate-risk patients. And in fact, the risks (such as internal bleeding, while occurring in only 1% of the aspirin group) outweigh the benefits for those with no heart-problem history, according to one of the studies. Note: People who have not had a heart attack but are at high risk of having one may be advised by their doctors to take a daily aspirin.
Here’s the rub: The back-and-forth nature of media reports on medical studies, in general, is enough to make us dizzy. So how should you interpret what you read in the news or hear on the TV or radio about medical studies on any given drug? Whom should you consult about a finding that interests you? How can you cut through the hype that the media may make about a study to determine its validity? Here’s what I recommend…
• Be skeptical of headlines. There are tens of thousands of medical studies published each year in medical journals all over the world. Those that make headlines are usually studies that news outlets interpret as radically different from previous findings. But the media are often misguided in the information they get about a study. In fact, a study published in The BMJ found that 40% of the press releases the researchers reviewed, put out by the universities in which a study was conducted, overstated the findings!
• Read the study. Finding a study is not all that difficult. The reference librarian at your local library can help. Plus, most medical studies are available online at PubMed.gov. You also can do a general Internet search. For the aspirin study, I simply searched for “Aspirin Study 2018.” It listed articles about it—and most important, the study itself as it appeared in The Lancet. If all this sounds too complicated, at least get a copy of the study and take it to your doctor…or if the research is heart-related, contact your local chapter of the AHA to have a representative there interpret it for you.
• Talk to your doctor. Don’t alter your medications or change your lifestyle based on a medical study reported in the media without first consulting your doctor. Ask him/her about the study and if it means that you should change a medication or other regimens.
• Remember that it’s not all black and white. Over the years, some studies have found that things like chocolate or coffee are not good for us. Yet most other studies say just the opposite. The message here is simple. One study—no matter how well conducted—is never the final answer. Medical research is an ongoing, ever-changing process. Seek out as much information as you can about a medical issue before you make a health-care decision. And don’t forget—ask for help when you’re not sure how to interpret what you’re reading!