Until recently I had never heard of Bob Harper (The Biggest Loser) but apparently he is a celebrity personal trainer and had a heart attack and nearly died. He is known “for his contagious energy, ruthless training tactics, and ability to transform contestants’ bodies on The Biggest Loser” (a show I’ve never seen.)
When celebrities die suddenly (see Garry Sanders, Carrie Fischer) or have a heart attack at a youngish age despite an apparent healthy lifestyle this get’s people’s attention.
The media typically pounce on the story which combines the seductive allure of both health and celebrity reporting.
It turns out Harper inherited a high Lipoprotein (a) (see here) which put him at high risk for coronary atherosclerosis (CAD) which ultimately caused the heart attack (MI) that caused his cardiac arrest.
To his credit, Harper has talked about Lipoprotein (a) and made the public and physicians more aware of this risk factor which does not show up in standard cholesterol testing.
Since his heart attack, Mr. Harper of “The Biggest Loser” has embarked on a newfound mission to raise awareness about heart disease and to urge people to get tested for lp(a).
Harper As Brilinta Shill
Unfortunately , he has also become a shill for Brilinta, an expensive brand name anti platelet drug often prescribed in patients after heart attacks or stents.
At the end of the TV commercial he says “If you’ve had a heart attack ask your doctor if Brilinta is right for you. My heart is worth Brilinta.”
At least this video is clearly an advertisement but patients and physicians are inundated by infomercials for expensive, profit-driving drugs like Brilinta.
This Healthline article pretends to be a legitimate piece of journalism but is a stealth ad for Brilinta combined with lots of real ads for Brilinta.
Harper As Lifestyle Coach.
Harper also changed his fitness and diet regimens after his MI reasoning that something must have been wrong with his lifestyle and it needed modification. For the most part he talks about more “balance” in his life which is good advice for everyone. His fitness regimens pre-MI were incredibly intense and have been toned down subsequently.
Of course, vegans and vegetarians have seized on this change in his diet as somehow proving the superiority of their chosen diets as in this vegan propaganda video:
Unfortunately there is no evidence that changing to a vegan or vegetarian diet will lower his risk of repeat MI. Those who promote the Esselstyn, Pritikin or Ornish type diets claim to “reverse heart disease” and to be science-based but, as I’ve pointed out (see here) the science behind these studies is really bad.
What Can We Really Learn From Bob Harper’s Experience?
Lipoprotein (a) is a significant risk marker for early CAD/MI/sudden cardiac death. Consider having it measured if you have a a) strong family history of premature deaths/heart attack (b) if you have developed premature subclinical atherosclerosis (see here) or clinical atherosclerosis (heart attack, stroke, peripheral vascular disease) or (c) a family member has been diagnosed with it.
Everyone should learn how to do CPR and how to utilize an AED. (see here for my rant on these two incredibly important 3-letter words). Harper was working out in the gym when he collapsed. Fortunately a nearby medical student had the wherewithal to do CPR on him until he could be defibrillated back to a normal rhythm and transported to a hospital to stop his MI.
Dropping dead suddenly is often the first indicator that you have advanced CAD. If you have a strong family history of sudden death or early CAD consider getting a coronary artery calcium scan to better assess your risk.
Focus on celebrities with heart disease helps bring awareness to the public about important issues but we can only learn so much about best lifestyle or medications from the experience of one individual, no matter how famous.
The skeptical cardiologist did not get to travel to Munich to attend the recent European Society of Cardiology meetings but the electrophysiologist, John Mandrola did. He summarized two big trials which showed no benefit of aspirin in the primary prevention of cardiac disease, one in patients with diabetes and one in patients with moderate risk in Ten Things I Learned About Aspirin at ESC
Of note, the lack of benefit in these studies is partially related to a much lower rate of events than predicted from standard risk models.
Why? Mandrola notes:
“societal efforts, such as lower rates of smoking and removal of trans-fats from the food supply, have led to a heart-healthier environment. In addition, greater use of preventive therapies—statins and antihypertensive meds, for instance—have also contributed to lower rates of cardiac disease. These developments increase the difficulty of running trials for primary prevention but are decidedly good news for patients.”
Similar to the ASPREE study, aspirin did not show any benefit in reducing GI cancer in these two large studies.
So aspirin may be less effective than it was decades ago because we have done a good job overall of reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Four years ago the skeptical cardiologist wrote the (in his extremely humble and biased opinion) the definitive post on aspirin and cardiovascular disease. Entitled “Should I take aspirin to prevent stroke or heart attack“, it pointed out that although Dr. Oz had recently told almost all middle-aged women to take a baby aspirin and fish oil, there was, in fact no evidence to support that practice.
The publication of the ASPREE (Aspirin in Reducing Events in the Elderly) trial results in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicinefurther strengthens the points I made in 2014.
Between 2010 and 2014 the ASPREE investigators enrolled over 19,000 community-dwelling persons in Australia and the United States who were 70 years of age or older (or ≥65 years of age among blacks and Hispanics in the United States) and did not have cardiovascular disease, dementia, or disability.
(It’s important to look closely at the precise inclusion and exclusion criteria in randomized studies to understand fully the implications of the results (for example, what qualified as cardiovascular disease) and I’ve listed them at the end of this post.)
Study participants were randomly assigned to receive 100 mg of enteric-coated aspirin or placebo. At the end of the study about 2/3 of participants in both groups were still taking their pills.
When I wrote about aspirin in 2014 I focused on cardiovascular disease. At that time, there was some reasonable evidence that aspirin might lower the risk of colorectal cancer. But when we look at outcomes the bottom line is how the drug influences the overall mix of diseases and deaths.
The ASPREE researchers chose disability-free survival, defined as survival free from dementia or persistent physical disability (inability to perform or severe difficulty in performing at least one of the six basic activities of daily living that had persisted for at least 6 month) as their primary end-point which makes a lot of sense-patients don’t want to just live longer, they want to live longer with a good quality of life. If aspirin, to take a totally hypothetical example) is stopping people from dying from heart attacks but making them demented it’s not benefiting them overall.
After 5 years there was no difference in the rate of death, dementia or permanent physical disability between the aspirin group (21.5 events per 1000 person-years) and placebo group (21.2 per 1000).
However those taking aspirin had a significantly higher rate of major bleeding (3.8%) than those taking placebo (2.8%).
The risk of death from any cause was 12.7 events per 1000 person-years in the aspirin group and 11.1 events per 1000 person-years in the placebo group.. Cancer was the major contributor to the higher mortality in the aspirin group, accounting for 1.6 excess deaths per 1000 person-years.
And, despite prior analyses suggesting aspirin reduces colorectal cancer the opposite was found in this study. Aspirin takers were 1.8 times more likely to die from colorectal cancer and 2.2 times more likely to die from breast cancer.
After a median of 4.7 years of follow-up, the rate of cardiovascular disease was 10.7 events per 1000 person-years in the aspirin group and 11.3 events per 1000 person-years in the placebo group (hazard ratio, 0.95; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.83 to 1.08). The rate of major hemorrhage was 8.6 events per 1000 person-years and 6.2 events per 1000 person-years, respectively (hazard ratio, 1.38; 95% CI, 1.18 to 1.62; P<0.001).
The ASPREE study confirms what I advised in 2014 and hopefully will further reduce the inappropriate consumption of aspirin among low risk individuals.
I’ve taken more patients off aspirin since 2014 than I’ve started on and what I wrote then remains relevant and reflects my current practice. Especially in light of the increase cancer risk noted in ASPREE patients should only take aspirin for good reasons.
Aspirin is a unique drug, the prototypical two-edged sword of pharmaceuticals. It t has the capability of stopping platelets, the sticky elements in our blood, from forming clots that cause strokes and heart attacks when arterial plaques rupture, but it increases the risk of serious bleeding into the brain or from the GI tract. Despite these powerful properties, aspirin is available over the counter and is very cheap, thus anyone can take it in any dosage they want.
Who Should Take Aspirin?
For the last five years I’ve been advising my patients who have no evidence of atherosclerotic vascular disease against taking aspirin to prevent heart attack and stroke. Several comprehensive reviews of all the randomized trials of aspirin had concluded by 2011 that
The current totality of evidence provides only modest support for a benefit of aspirin in patients without clinical cardiovascular disease, which is offset by its risk. For every 1,000 subjects treated with aspirin over a 5-year period, aspirin would prevent 2.9 MCE and cause 2.8 major bleeds.
(MCE=major cardiovascular events, e.g. stroke, heart attack, death from cardiovascular disease)
Dr. Oz, on the other hand, came to St. Louis in 2011 to have lunch with five hundred women and advised them all to take a baby aspirin daily (and fish oil, which is not indicated for primary prevention as I have discussed here). When I saw these women subsequently in my office I had to spend a fair amount of our visit explaining why they didn’t need to take aspirin and fish oil.
After reviewing available data, the FDA this week issued a statementrecommending against aspirin use for the prevention of a first heart attack or stroke in patients with no history of cardiovascular disease (i.e. for primary prevention). The FDA pointed out that aspirin use is associated with “serious risks,” including increased risk of bleeding in the stomach and brain. As for secondary prevention for people with cardiovascular disease or those who have had a previous heart attack or stroke (secondary prevention), the available evidence continues to support aspirin use.
Subclinical Atherosclerosis and Aspirin usage
As I’ve discussed previously, however, many individuals who have not had a stroke or heart attack are walking around with a substantial burden of atherosclerosis in their arteries. Fatty plaques can become quite advanced in the arteries to the brain and heart before they obstruct blood flow and cause symptoms. In such individuals with subclinical atherosclerosis aspirin is going to be much more beneficial.
Guided Use of Aspirin
We have the tools available to look for atherosclerotic plaques before they rupture and cause heart attacks or stroke. Ultrasound screening of the carotid artery, as I discussed here, is one such tool: vascular screening is an accurate, harmless and painless way to assess for subclinical atherosclerosis.
Coronary calcium is another, which I’ve written extensively about.
In my practice, the answer to the question of who should or should not take aspirin is based on whether my patient has or does not have significant atherosclerosis. If they have had a clinical event due to atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (stroke, heart attack, coronary stent, coronary bypass surgery, documented blocked arteries to the legs) I recommend they take one 81 milligram (baby) uncoated aspirin daily. If they have not had a clinical event but I have documented by either
Incidentally discovered significant plaque in the aorta or peripheral arteries (found by CT or ultrasound done for other reasons)
then I recommend a daily baby aspirin (assuming no high risk of bleeding).
There are no randomized trials testing this approach but in the next few years several large aspirin trials will be completed and hopefully we will get a better understanding of who benefits most from aspirin for primary prevention.
Until then remember that aspirin is a powerful drug with potential for good and bad effects on your body. Only take it if you and your health care provider have decided the benefits outweigh the risks after careful consideration of your particular situation
The inclusion criteria for ASPREE define significant cardiovascular disease as follows
a past history of cardiovascular or cerebrovascular event or established CVD, defined as myocardial infarction (MI), heart failure, angina pectoris, stroke, transient ischemic attack, >50% carotid stenosis or previous carotid endarterectomy or stenting, coronary artery angioplasty or stenting, coronary artery bypass grafting, abdominal aortic aneurysm
With the recent recall of valsartan due to carcinogenic Chinese contaminants the issue of where one’s generic medication is manufactured has become more important.
I take two generics: ramipril for my hypertension and rosuvastatin for my cholesterol/atherosclerosis and I had no idea where they came from when I discussed the rise of generics manufactured in China recently.
Where Is My Ramipril Made?
I called my St. Lukes pharmacist, Robert, and asked him if he could give me information on the origin of these pills.
Robert told me that my 10 mg ramipril capsule was distributed by a company called West-Ward located in New Jersey. West-Ward was an independent Columbus, Ohio company but was purchased in 2016 by a very large pharmaceutical company , Hikma, based in Aaman, Jordan. Now the Hikma web site indicates West-Ward is no more and is simply called Hikma in the US.
Hikma Pharmaceuticals Plc projects it will end 2017 with about $2 billion revenue, about $600 million of which is from generic drugs made by its U.S. subsidiary West-Ward. In the spring, the company had projected $800 million in generics sales.
Customer service at Hikma informs me that my ramipril was made in their Columbus, Ohio plant.
Where Is My Rosuvastatin Made?
My rosuvastatin (generic of Crestor) was made by Glenmark Pharmaceuticals which, per wikipedia
Glenmark received FDA approval to market their generic rosuvastatin in the US in July, 2016. and at that time had 115 products authorized for distribution in the US market and 61 drugs pending approval with the US FDA.
My rosuvastatin according to Robert was made in India although the Glenmark product catalog does not reveal this information.
Generic versus Brand Name
I’ve talked about Crestor/rosuvastatin a few times on this blog and the development of a generic version has been very helpful for many of my patients. Looking online today I see that generic rosuvastatin goes for about 10$ per month compared to 260$ for Crestor.
Is it worth paying an extra 250$ per month to get brand name Crestor if, let’s say it was manufactured in the US? For most people it isn’t. For one thing, there is no guarantee of where your brand name drug is manufactured.
Crestor used to be made in a factory in Bristol, UK but this was shut down in 2017 and now I can’t tell where Astra-Zeneca makes the stuff. Frankly, I’m surprised that they are selling any of the drug which used to account for 5 billion dollars of their annual sales.
So my cholesterol drug is made in India by an Indian company and my blood pressure drug is made in Columbus, Ohio by a Jordanian company.
I never realized how globalized the pharmaceutical industry has become. Hopefully, the FDA is doing a good job of monitoring the safety and quality of products we rely on for our wellbeing which are manufactured all over the globe.
Last week the FDA recalled several versions of the generic blood pressure medication valsartan which were made in China and contained a carcinogen (see here.)
Since then I have switched many patients from the bad valsartan to losartan or valsartan from presumably safe manufacturers.
It didn’t really occur to me that this could be just the tip of the iceberg until I received a reader comment which I will copy below.
As I thought about it, I realized that I have no idea where the generic ramipril I am taking is manufactured. It very well could be in China or India.
This recent article from The Epoch Times confirms that Americans are becoming more and more reliant on medications manufactured in China and that many researchers feel this poses a significant security threat.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is inspecting only a small number of the Chinese companies that manufacture U.S. drugs, and those it does inspect are often found to have serious health violations. Meanwhile, the drugs that are making their way into the United States from China, either as finished products or as ingredients, are often falling far below U.S. safety standards. And some of these drugs are not being inspected at all.
It is very hard to find out how many US drugs come from China since drug companies don’t make their sources apparent. In addition, even if the drugs themselves aren’t manufactured in China, Gibson and Singh write
“China is the largest global supplier of the active ingredients and chemical building blocks needed to make many prescription drugs, over the counter products and vitamins.”
Below are the comments of my reader:
This is horrible. We have a problem in the U.S. It is the infiltration of Chinese generics. I had no idea that this generic was being supplied by a Chinese maker. In fact, the bottles I got said “SOLCO” which is based in New Jersey. Now I’m painfully aware that SOLCO Healthcare US which is based in New Jersey, is owned by Zhejiang Huahai Paarmaceutical based in China’s Zhejiang Province. So this is the Chinese company’s subsidiary distributing this drug in the U.S. China has a long history of selling tainted products in the U.S. Chinese drywall, lead-based paint on toys, tainted pet food, etc. Now it is important to understand that 85% of prescriptions filled in the U.S. are generic. And insurance companies will not pay for brand when generic is available. My valsartan was about $30 for 90 days. Diovan is $750. I get it. But when these companies cut corners and people are endangered, something is wrong. I will never ever take another generic drug without first finding out where the product comes from. I know this is not perfect, but it is something. I think the U.S. lawmakers need to do something to make this information more transparent. It baffles me as to how this drug could have been tainted with a highly toxic chemical for so many years (they now say 4 years). This chemical is known to cause liver damage and cancer. Apparently the manufacturer changed the way it made the active ingredient which created this poison by-product. And now who do we hold accountable? How do we get to the bottom of what went wrong, and how to prevent this going forward. We have no way to compel anything in China. All that said, thanks for your information here it is helpful. I worry that the losartan is made by the same company – I will surely investigate.
China is also flooding the American market with useless OTC medications. I realized this when I looked closely at this “motion sickness patch” which is highly rated on Amazon.
It has no active ingredient which could be realistically thought to treat motion sickness yet is featured on Amazon’s motion sickness treatment section and is favorably reviewed by over a thousand users.
Unfortunately, in the US now users of medications must be very aware of the source and quality of the products they put in their body. Generic prescription medications and OTC products are highly likely to be manufactured out of the US and with minimal oversight.
The FDA issued a press release July 13 announcing the voluntary recall of several drug products containing valsartan.
Valsartan is a generic, commonly used member of the drug class of angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) used for high blood pressure and heart failure and I have many patients on it. The brand name form of it (Diovan) does not appear to be on the recall list.
Per the FDA, the recall was
due to an impurity, N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), which was found in the recalled products. However, not all products containing valsartan are being recalled. NDMA is classified as a probable human carcinogen (a substance that could cause cancer) based on results from laboratory tests. The presence of NDMA was unexpected and is thought to be related to changes in the way the active substance was manufactured.
If you are taking it read the following from the FDA to see if your particular manufacturer is included in the recall.
If your valsartan has been recalled contact your doctor for instructions. For my patients, most likely I will substitute another ARB called losartan which has very similar effectiveness and side effects.
Information for Patients and Health Care Professionals From The FDA
Because valsartan is used in medicines to treat serious medical conditions, patients taking the recalled valsartan-containing medicines should continue taking their medicine until they have a replacement product.
To determine whether a specific product has been recalled, patients should look at the drug name and company name on the label of their prescription bottle. If the information is not on the bottle, patients should contact the pharmacy that dispensed the medicine.
If a patient is taking one of the recalled medicines listed below, they should follow the recall instructions provided by the specific company. This information will be posted to the FDA’s website.
Patients should also contact their health care professional (the pharmacist who dispensed the medication or doctor who prescribed the medication) if their medicine is included in this recall to discuss their treatment, which may include another valsartan product not affected by this recall or an alternative treatment option.
The companies listed below are recalling all lots of non-expired products that contain the ingredient valsartan supplied by a third-party. Not all valsartan-containing medicines distributed in the United States have valsartan active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) supplied by this specific company. The supplier has stopped distributing its valsartan API and the FDA is working with the affected companies to reduce or eliminate the valsartan API impurity from future products.
Teva Pharmaceuticals Industries Ltd.
Teva Pharmaceuticals Industries Ltd.
“We have carefully assessed the valsartan-containing medications sold in the United States, and we’ve found that the valsartan sold by these specific companies does not meet our safety standards. This is why we’ve asked these companies to take immediate action to protect patients,” said Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.
A patient of mine with atrial fibrillation taking the blood thinner eliquis told me that she had eaten grapefruit for two days in a row and then developed a nose bleed. She had heard of the interaction between grapefruit and certain medications and wondered if this had caused her nose bleed.
I was unaware of any eliquis/grapefruit interaction but thought this was a remarkably astute observation and question and set about to research it properly.
Among other things, I discovered that some researchers believe the grapefruit-drug interaction to be a widespread , underreported and highly significant problem while others feel it is overblown and a rare cause of clinically important side effects.
For those, who prefer not to delves into the gory details I give you the crux of what BMS/Pfizer, the makers of apixiban (Eliquis) told me and with which I agree:
When consumed in usual dietary volumes, grapefruit juice is considered a moderate inhibitor of CYP3A4. Therefore a dose adjustment of apixaban is not expected to be required.
In other words, although not formally studied, there is no evidence that apixiban levels are increased by moderate grapefruit juice ingestion to a degree that would cause significant bleeding complications.
Although multiple sites on the internet (including the unreliable Web MD) will tell you of a potentially dangerous interaction between grapefruit and apixiban this theoretical interaction has not proven clinically significant.
Below is the full text of the letter BMS sent me
Bristol-Myers Squibb and/or Pfizer have not conducted any studies evaluating the concomitant use of apixaban and grapefruit juice. The decision to prescribe apixaban in patients who are concomitantly taking grapefruit juice is a clinical decision for the treating physician based on the individual’s circumstances and inaccordance with the full prescribing information for apixaban.
While in vitro data indicates grapefruit juice can inhibit both cytochrome P450 (CYP) 3A4 and P-glycoprotein (P-gp), clinical evidence suggests that grapefruit juice mediated interactions would be primarily due to the inhibition of CYP3A4 and the contribution of P-gp inhibition may be limited.1, 2 When consumed in usual dietary volumes, grapefruit juice is considered a moderate inhibitor of CYP3A4.1 Therefore a dose adjustment of apixaban is not expected to be required.
Apixaban is eliminated from the body through multiple pathways, with approximately 25% of the administered dose recovered as metabolites. The main metabolic pathway for apixaban is through CYP3A4/5, with minor contributions from other CYP isoenzymes. Apixaban is also a substrate of transport proteins P-gp and breast cancer resistance protein.3
 Hanley MJ, Cancalon P, Widmer WW,et al. The effect of grapefruit juice on drug disposition. Expert Opin Drug Metab Toxicol. 2011; 7(3):267-286.
 Farkas DG and Greenblatt DJ. Influence of fruit juices on drug disposition: discrepancies between in vitro and clinical studies. Expert Opin Drug Metab Toxicol. 2008;4(4):381-393.
 Eliquis® (apixaban) Package Insert. Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, Princeton, NJ and Pfizer Inc, New York, NY
I was hurriedly shaving the other day and felt a sharp stinging sensation in my philtrum. Shortly thereafter, blood began pouring forth from the area and dribbling into my mouth.
I don’t typically name-check the area between the nose and the margin of the upper lip, but if one cuts the area (and wants to write about the experience), it is useful to have a single noun that describes it precisely.
The human philtrum is apparently vestigial; per Wikipedia
Although lacking function, it does cause a protrusion in the otherwise smooth facade of the face, and as a consequence, is at an increased risk for cuts.
Despite holding pressure on the cut for many minutes and daubing it with toilet paper, it continued to bleed. The bleeding continued on for much longer than I am use to, and after a while I realized that my bleeding was prolonged due to the aspirin I have been taking.
I’ve been following my own advice to those with documented significant atherosclerotic plaque, and have been taking 81mg aspirin daily. I began chewing daily my chewable aspirin after writing my post on the best form of baby aspirin to take. Prior to that it was only intermittently.
BARCing Up the Willow Tree
As a cardiologist I commonly hear patients complain about the nuisance of bruising and bleeding caused by the aspirin and other blood thinners I have prescribed them. Now I had joined their ranks.
Doctors mostly worry about major bleeding caused by aspirin; things like bleeding from the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, or into the head. A recent review found that baby aspirin doubles the risk of bleeding from the upper GI tract, and increases the risk of intracranial hemorrhage by a factor of 1.4.
There is relatively little concern about the type of minor bleeding I experienced. However, beginning in 2010, the Bleeding Academic Research Consortium (BARC) investigators came up with a more precise way of categorizing bleeding events, the BARC bleeding types.
By far, the most common bleeding on aspirin is the kind I had: Type 1 BARC.
Type 1: bleeding that is not actionable and does not cause the patient to seek unscheduled performance of studies, hospitalization, or treatment by a healthcare professional. Examples include, but are not limited to, bruising, hematoma, nosebleeds, or hemorrhoidal bleeding for which the patient does not seek medical attention. Type 1 bleeding may include episodes that lead to discontinuation of medications by the patient because of bleeding without visiting a healthcare provider.
Indeed, my Type 1 bleeding prompted me to skip my aspirin doses for the next few days.
Many patients do the same thing. Just this morning a patient told she had stopped taking her aspirin because she thought it was causing “little red spots” on her arms.
Does Prolonged Bleeding Mean You Are Taking Too Much Aspirin?
My philtrum persisted in bleeding, and as I felt the need to use my hands for something other than holding pressure, I put a band-aid on the area (actually a Nexcare), which temporarily stemmed the bleeding tide: I began pondering if I was taking too much aspirin.
Since aspirin is so widely used to prevent heart attacks and strokes caused by sticky platelets, why isn’t there a way to see how effective it is at making sticky platelets less sticky? We have such methods for blood pressure meds (blood pressure levels) and cholesterol lowering drugs (cholesterol levels).
And for the older blood thinner warfarin, we have a blood test which helps us make sure the dosage of medication is keeping the blood thinning in a range that maximizes effectiveness and minimizes bleeding risk.
It turns out there are lots of ways to measure how effective aspirin is in an individual, but no consensus on which particular method should be used, and authorities don’t recommend we make such measurements.
This article on platelet function tests lists 13 different platelet function tests, ranging from the mostly historical “bleeding time” to sophisticated tests of platelet aggregation.
The Verify Now test (not available in the US) of platelet reactivity predicted in one study which patients would have BARC type I bleeding like mine. The test did not predict major bleeding complications, things like GI bleeding and intracranial hemorrhage.
Those patients who had minor bleeding problems were more likely to be noncompliant, stopping their aspirin therapy.
I could easily visualize the following scenario as the blood began pooling underneath my band-aid and progressing down my philtrum.
Let’s say I’ve just had a heart attack and had a drug-eluting stent placed in one of my coronary arteries. I’ve been started on aspirin and another anti-platelet drug. I cut myself and bleed excessively and prolongedly. I decide that the aspirin is the reason, and start skipping doses. The lower aspirin levels subsequently allow my platelets to become sticky again. As a result a clot forms in my coronary stent and a heart attack ensues.
Thus, prolonged bleeding from a cut, considered a minor side effect of aspirin therapy, could increase heart attack risk.
There is a clinically available test for aspirin effect called AspirinWorks.
The AspirinWorks Test Kit is an enzyme-linked immunoassay (ELISA) to determine levels of 11-dehydrothromboxane B2 (11dhTxB2) in human urine, which aids in the qualitative detection of aspirin effect in apparently healthy individuals post ingestion. Unlike platelet aggregation tests, which require freshly drawn blood that must be evaluated within at least four hours, the AspirinWorks Test is performed on a random urine sample that can easily be obtained in any doctor’s office.
AspirinWorks points out the putative benefits of testing for aspirin effect:
An increasing body of evidence in the medical literature overwhelmingly supports clinically significant variability in aspirin effect, which has been well-established in findings from trials, including the Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation (HOPE) Study and the CHARISMA trial published in Circulation (Journal) (2002 and 2008). These trials have demonstrated that:
Increased levels of urinary 11dhTxB2 are associated with as much as a four fold increased risk for adverse cardiovascular events or death.
Statin treatment is associated with lower concentrations of 11dhTxB2
11dhTxB2 is an independent, modifiable predictor of risk for stroke, heart attack and cardiac death (CHARISMA).
I have never ordered this test and am unaware of any other physicians ordering it on their patients.
Dealing With Minor Bleeding
Doctors don’t test for aspirin effect in individual patients because it is expensive and it won’t change our approach in most cases.
Taking 81 mg aspirin daily might be too high a dose to optimize the balance between bleeding and clotting in me. If I took it every other day I might have less Type I BARC episodes. However, we don’t have any good evidence that adjusting the dosage based on aspirin effectiveness testing will improve my outcomes.
Thus, we bleeders on baby aspirin (the BOBA) of the world must find better ways of dealing with minor bleeding.
When I changed the band-aid on my philtrum several hours after the initial cut, I began actively bleeding again. This time I decided to apply ice to the area to vasoconstrict the arteries. This, plus more pressure and time, almost completely stopped the bleeding.
Another Nexcare was applied to the area, and when it was removed the next morning, the bleeding did not resume.
There are a variety of other measures that can be tried with varying degrees of success, as described here (deodorant, lip balm, listerine, Visine) and here (styptic pencils and powders, cayenne pepper, tea bag, sugar, alum-ironically this article mentions making a paste out of aspirin and applying it to the cut).
There also appears to be a thriving industry devoted to commercial products for stopping bleeding from minor cuts outlined here.
Should We Worry About Minor Bleeding?
Ultimately, the seemingly excessive bleeding one experiences upon incidentally cutting oneself while taking aspirin is best viewed as a reassuring sign that the drug is doing its job: Your platelets are less sticky, less likely to cause bad clots that cause strokes and heart attacks.
Platelets don’t know bad from good clots, they just react indiscriminately.
The small amount of blood that exudes from superficial cuts can be scary but it can be controlled with fairly simple measures.
The little red dots my patient experiences, although unattractive, are benign.
The skeptical cardiologist recently asked his Eternal Fiancée to grab a bottle of baby aspirin while she was at the local Walgreen’s. Aspirin or acetyl salicylic acid (ASA) comes in either a 325 mg dose or in a low dose which can be between 75 to 100 mg and is often called “baby” aspirin.
However, since a link between aspirin use and a potentially lethal disease called Reye’s syndrome was identified in the 1980s, no authorities recommend aspirin in children or babies, and the low dose ASA (LDASA) is primarily marketed and used for prevention of cardiovascular disease.
Although Bayer and Dr. Oz would have us believe that all individuals over the age of 55 should be taking LDASA, as I pointed out here in 2014, the FDA no longer recommends it for prevention of cardiovascular disease.
The USPSTF recommends initiating low-dose aspirin use for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and colorectal cancer (CRC) in adults aged 50 to 59 years who have a 10% or greater 10-year CVD risk, are not at increased risk for bleeding, have a life expectancy of at least 10 years, and are willing to take low-dose aspirin daily for at least 10 years.
I’m 63 years old, so the USPTF recommendation for me to take LDASA is a little less enthusiastic:
The decision to initiate low-dose aspirin use for the primary prevention of CVD and CRC in adults aged 60 to 69 years who have a 10% or greater 10-year CVD risk should be an individual one. Persons who are not at increased risk for bleeding, have a life expectancy of at least 10 years, and are willing to take low-dose aspirin daily for at least 10 years are more likely to benefit. Persons who place a higher value on the potential benefits than the potential harms may choose to initiate low-dose aspirin.
Following my own advice (see here), I have started taking 81mg of aspirin regularly (well, when I remember) in order to prevent stroke and heart attack. I do have subclinical atherosclerosis with a plaque in my LAD, and I think the aspirin will make my platelets less sticky and less likely to form clots if my plaque ruptures, thereby reducing my chances of an acute heart attack.
I am willing to accept the increased risk of bleeding from the gastrointestinal tract and hemorrhagic stroke associated with LDASA use.
Previous to this I had been taking ASA from little sample bottles that Bayer sends to my office. These bottles are quite annoying as they are stuffed with cotton and contain very few pills making extrication of the tiny pills an exercise in futility (I am using this as an excuse for my lack of regularity in taking them).
There’s no reason to pay the premium for Bayer ASA despite the company’s advertising attempts to link inextricably their name with ASA. Aspirin is aspirin, whether Bayer made it or Walgreens. In Bayer’s defense, their website has reasonable information on heart attacks and they appear to be giving aspirin away to people named Smith.
But what type of aspirin should you get? Enteric-coated, safety-coated, delayed release, chewable?
I asked the Eternal Fiancée to buy the cheapest baby aspirin possible.
She ended up buying a chewable formulation with orange flavoring, presumably aimed at children:
When I put one of these in my mouth I tasted the sickly sweet taste of an artificial sweetener. The ingredients are listed as: Dextrates, Ethyl Cellulose, FD&C Yellow 6 Aluminum Lake, Orange Flavor, Sodium Saccharin, Starch. Saccharine! Yikes!
The only reason to chew ASA is if you are having an acute heart attack.
In this situation, chew 4 of the LDASA or one regular 325 mg aspirin. Chewing the aspirin makes the levels rise faster in your blood stream and can help dissolve the clot causing your heart attack more rapidly.
How do you know if you are having a heart attack? This is actually a very difficult question to answer with certainty. See here for a reasonable discussion.
Low Dose Aspirin: Enteric-Coated versus Non-coated
It is very difficult (perhaps impossible) to find low dose, non-chewable ASA that has not been “safety-coated” or “enteric-coated.” These formulations have become popular by promoting the idea that they are less likely to cause stomach pain or bleeding.
The concept is that the coating leads to delaying the aborption of the ASA until it reaches the small intestines where, presumably, it will do less damage. However, there is no good evidence to support lower bleeding risk with enteric-coasted (EC) ASA.
There is, on the other hand, very good evidence that therapeutic levels of aspirin in the bloodstream, and therefore the speed and efficacy of ASA in preventing heart attacks, is reduced by these “safety” formulations.
Volunteers were given either 325mg regular ASA or 325mg EC ASA and researchers looked at how each formulation effected platelet activity. The onset of antiplatelet activity was determined by the rate and extent of inhibition of serum thromboxane B2(TXB2) generation.
The EC ASA took longer and was less effective at blocking platelet activity than plain ASA. Presumably, this translates into lower efficacy in preventing heart attacks and strokes.
Therefore, if you feel like you are having a heart attack, chew ASA which is not enteric or safety-coated. Yes, you can chew a regular 325 mg ASA pill. Or you can chew 4 of the LDASA, preferably uncoated but still helpful if coated.
If it turns out you weren’t having a heart attack there is no down side to having chewed 325 mg ASA.
I just spent a fair amount of time trying to find non EC, non-chewable LDASA online and failed.
For the time being I will be swallowing daily the orange chewable LDASA and I will carry a bottle around in my satchel for emergency use.
N.B. Aspirin is generally recommended in secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease, ie. for those who have had heart attacks, stents or bypass surgery . For a good review of the evidence for this see here.
The NY Times published an article earlier this month with the provocative title “You’re Over 75, and You’re Healthy. Why Are You Taking a Statin?”
It’s actually a balanced presentation of this difficult question (although it includes the seemingly obligatory anecdote of a patient getting severe muscle aches and weakness on Lipitor) and I agree with the concept that patients should demand a good thoughtful explanation from their PCP if they are on a statin. Shared physician and patient decision-making should occur irrespective of age when a statin is prescribed.
Unfortunately, the NY Times piece was triggered by and contains references to a weak observational study that was recently published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society..
A much better article on this same topic was published earlier in January in what is arguably the most respected cardiology journal in the world (Journal of the American College of Cardiology).
It contains what I think is a very reasonable discussion of the problem: the elderly at are a substantially higher risk of adverse “statin-associated symptoms” but also at much higher risk of stroke, heart attack and cardiovascular-related death than the young.
Key Points To Consider For Use of Statins In Elderly
Some key points from that article to ponder for those over 75 years
Major European and North Americans national guidelines differ markedly in this area as this graphic illustrates
“At one end of the spectrum, the 2016 ESC/EAS guidelines miss great opportunities for safe, cheap, and evidence-based prevention in elderly individuals 66 to 75 years of age. At the other end of the spectrum, the 2014 NICE guideline provides near-universal treatment recommendations well into the very elderly >75 years of age where RCT evidence is sparse and more uncertain.”
2. Data on from 2 large primary prevention trial (JUPITER and HOPE-3) show that rosuvastatin (Ridker, et al)
reduced the risk of a composite endpoint (nonfatal MI, nonfatal stroke, or cardiovascular death) substantially by 49% (RR: 0.51; 95% CI: 0.38 to 0.69), and the risk was reduced by 26% (RR: 0.74; 95% CI: 0.61 to 0.91) in those ≥70 years of age. The efficacy was similar in individuals ≥70 and <65 years of age, indicating little heterogeneity in treatment effect by age. Today, nearly all apparently healthy elderly individuals have RCT evidence supporting statin efficacy.
3. The elderly compared to the younger are much more likely to have a nonfatal event which does not reduce their longevity but impacts their quality of life.
Thus, patient preferences are critical important for well-informed shared decision-making. If a patient only values longevity, there are little data to support primary prevention with statins in people >65 years of age. On the other hand, if preventing nonfatal and potentially disabling MI or stroke is of value to the patient, it might be reasonable to initiate statin therapy. From this perspective, it is noteworthy that the relative importance that people assign to avoiding death compared with avoiding nonfatal events appears to be highly age dependent. Although younger individuals <65 years of age weigh avoiding death highest, elderly individuals ≥65 years put a much higher weight on avoiding MI or stroke than death, These differences are compatible with elderly individuals having a greater focus on quality of life and avoiding disability than on extending life.
The Value of Derisking and Deprescribing
In my practice, I do a fair amount of deprescribing statins in the elderly. I have a very low threshold for initiating a trial of temporary statin cessation if there is any question that a patient’s symptoms could be statin-related (see here.)
The older the patient, the higher the bar for initiating statins and I think in all patients a search for subclinical atherosclerosis (coronary calcium scan or vascular ultrasound) helps inform the decision.
Previously, I had no term for this higher bar but I like the term the JACC paper introduces, derisking:
A promising approach to personalize treatment in elderly people is “derisking” by use of negative risk markers (i.e., absence of coronary artery calcification) to identify those at so low risk that statin therapy may safely be withheld . In the BioImage study of elderly individuals, for example, absence of coronary artery calcification was prevalent (≈1 of 3) and associated with exceptionally low ASCVD event rates
If you are >75 ponder all these factors and have an intense discussion with your doctor about taking a statin.
If you are still on the fence after this discussion consider a compromise approach that I have outlined here.