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But it's still not very likely that aspirin users will develop the condition, and the study's lead author said patients should keep in mind that aspirin lowers the risk of heart disease.
"If the link with aspirin is a true one, then only a small proportion of those who take aspirin -- approximately one in 2,000 -- may be at risk," said study author Dr. Andrew Hart, a senior lecturer in gastroenterology at University of East Anglia School of Medicine. "If aspirin has been prescribed to people with Crohn's disease or with a family history by their physician, then they should continue to take it. Aspirin has many beneficial effects and should be continued."
An estimated 500,000 people in the United States have Crohn's disease, which causes digestive problems and can boost the risk of bowel cancer. In some cases, patients must undergo surgery; many have to take medications for the rest of their lives.
While aspirin is known for its ability to reduce the risk of heart disease, it can cause stomach ulcers, and research in animals has suggested it can be hard on the intestines, too. The study authors decided to see if it had the same effect in humans, Hart said.
In the new study, researchers tracked 200,000 volunteers, aged 30 to 74, from several European countries.
The researchers found that aspirin use for a year or more boosted the risk of Crohn's disease by five times.
However, the study only suggests there's a link between aspirin use and the disease; it doesn't prove that aspirin actually increased the risk. And the researchers didn't know how much aspirin each person took.
Why might aspirin boost the risk of Crohn's disease? Dr. William J. Sandborn, vice chair of Mayo Clinic's Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, said it might have something to do with aspirin damaging the lining of the bowel, potentially triggering the condition in those who are susceptible to it because of their genetic makeup.
Sandborn, who's familiar with the findings, agreed with Hart that patients need to think about the benefits of aspirin use, including the reduced risk of not only heart disease but also colorectal cancer.
The study found no link between aspirin use and ulcerative colitis, another digestive disorder.
Future research is needed to confirm the aspirin-Crohn's disease link and determine what aspirin has to do with the higher risk, Hart said.
"If it does turn out to be a true link in the future, then it will be only one of many factors involved in causing Crohn's disease," he said. "Because aspirin has benefits, users should continue with it."
The study was to be presented Monday at the Digestive Disease Week conference in New Orleans.
-- Randy Dotinga
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