From Our 2011 Archives

Baby Aspirin May Help Memory, Thinking Skills

Study Suggests Older Women Who Take Baby Aspirin May Experience Less Cognitive Decline

By Charlene Laino
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

July 18, 2011 (Paris) -- Women who are taking a baby aspirin or two a day for their heart health may be safeguarding their brain health, too, preliminary research suggests.

In a five-year study of more than 100 older people at similar risk for heart disease, scores on a standardized test that gauges memory and other cognitive skills increased slightly in women who took 75 to 150 milligrams of aspirin a day while dropping in those who didn't take aspirin.

Still, "this does not mean low-dose aspirin will prevent or treat Alzheimer's disease," says Maria Carrillo, PhD, senior director of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer's Association.

"Don't start taking aspirin on your own," she says. Carrillo was not involved with the research, presented at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference 2011.

Role of Inflammation

Both cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline are major causes of disability in the elderly. Increasing evidence suggests that inflammation plays a major role in the development of not only heart disease, but of dementia as well.

Aspirin is an anti-inflammatory drug that is widely prescribed to prevent heart disease. But studies looking at whether anti-inflammatory drugs protect brain health have shown conflicting results.

The new study sought to examine a possible protective effect of low-dose aspirin treatment on cognitive function in older people at high risk for cardiovascular disease.

The study involved 605 people aged 70 to 92 with no signs of dementia. They filled out a questionnaire that asked about their overall health, their medical history, and their medications.

Participants also underwent physical and psychiatric examinations and were given the Mini Mental State Exam (MMSE), a brief test of cognitive skills, including attention span and memory. The MMSE is used to help doctors make a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer's dementia.

Of the 605 participants, 107 were taking 75 to 150 milligrams of aspirin daily. The aspirin and the no-aspirin groups had a similar risk of developing cardiovascular disease over the next 10 years.

Brain Health: Men vs. Women

Over five years, scores on the 30-point MMSE, in which higher scores correspond to better cognitive health, dropped by an average of about half a point in the aspirin group, compared with about a point in the no-aspirin group.

When looked at by sex, only women benefited, says study researcher Silke Kern, MD, PhD, of the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Among women, there was an increase of about one-quarter of a point in the aspirin group and a decline of one to two points in the no-aspirin group.

"Among men, we didn't see any differences in MMSE changes between the groups," she tells WebMD.

The average MMSE scores at the start of the study were 27 for the aspirin group and 28 for the no-aspirin group.

The findings should be considering preliminary, and women in the aspirin group could share some other characteristic that explains their slight improvement on the cognitive test, Kern says.

The study is important not for pointing to a potential new therapy, but instead for pointing to the need for more research on an inexpensive drug that is already used by millions, Carrillo says.

Always check with your doctor before starting any drug. Many people cannot tolerate aspirin, which carries a risk of bleeding, she adds.

These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

SOURCES: Alzheimer's Association International Conference 2011, Paris, July 16-21, 2011.Silke Kern, MD, PhD, Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.Maria Carrillo, PhD, senior director, medical and scientific relations, Alzheimer's Association. ©2011 WebMD, LLC. All Rights Reserved.