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A worker of miracles

Published Oct. 14, 2005

The most exciting miracle drug this year is a little white tablet. It costs as little as half a penny per pill and it can do more things for more people than any other medicine we know. Not only does this extraordinary drug help prevent heart attacks and strokes, it relieves the pain of arthritis and headaches and reduces the rate of migraines.

More recently, researchers have reported that this medication can improve the outcome of some high-risk pregnancies. Preliminary studies suggest that this wonder drug may help prevent the occurrence of gallstones, boost the effectiveness of flu vaccine and even be helpful against certain cancers.

Most families won't have to rush to the doctor to ask for this extraordinary compound because the chances are it is already in the medicine chest. Trouble is, it is so common and cheap people have been taking it for granted for decades. Would you believe our favorite five-star remedy is acetylsalicylic acid, otherwise known as aspirin? No matter how many new uses clinicians uncover for this 92-year-old chemical, it seems as if surprising new discoveries keep cropping up.

Obstetricians are especially excited about the newest aspirin breakthrough. Pregnant women who develop high blood pressure (preeclampsia) are more likely to give birth early and to have smaller babies. They and their babies are at higher risk of death.

Physicians have tried many different treatments for this condition with varying degrees of success. Now low-dose aspirin appears to be one of the safer and more effective ways to control this common condition.

Perhaps even more significant is the preliminary research from Boston University. Scientists there discovered, in analyzing patient records, that people taking aspirin were less likely by half to develop colorectal cancer.

Other investigators in Chicago and Sweden are checking to see if aspirin can boost conventional chemotherapy. Basic research indicates that aspirin helps the body make interferon and interleukin.

British physicians have found that some patients who have gallstones treated by medication instead of surgery have recurrences. This did not occur in those people who also were taking aspirin.

Another area of intense interest is prevention of senile dementia. It is still too early to tell whether aspirin is effective, but some researchers have found clues that this drug may be helpful against mini-stroke dementia.

Cardiologists have been recommending taking an aspirin every other day since 1988. That was when the Physicians' Health Study found that the male doctors taking aspirin every other day had 40 percent fewer heart attacks than those taking an inactive lookalike tablet.

Although aspirin doesn't get much respect from the American public, scientists are rapidly revising their opinion. Aspirin is now on many lists of most-valuable drug.

People shouldn't start taking daily aspirin on their own, however. Most, especially pregnant women, need to check with their doctors to make sure that aspirin is appropriate. Like all medications, it can cause side effects and in some cases could do more harm than good.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Dr. Teresa Graedon is a medical anthropologist and nutrition expert. Their newest book is Graedons' Best Medicine (Bantam Books).