Aspirin, the over-the-counter painkiller, was touted as the wonder drug of the last century. Just one a day would avert a heart attack, its advocates claimed (although daily supplementation of cod or fish liver oil is safer and better).
Now, it and other NSAIDs (non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs) can also prevent Alzheimer's and combat colorectal cancer, according to two new studies.
Its role as a preventative of Alzheimer's and dementia was first mooted around six years ago, and a new meta-analysis has confirmed this early claim. Researchers from the University of Toronto analysed nine studies, involving 15,000 people, and found that those who regularly took an NSAID reduced their risk of Alzheimer's by 30 per cent, although those who took aspirin reduced their risk by only 13 per cent.
Unfortunately nobody seems to know how much should be taken, nor for how long, before the NSAID starts to offer protection, although the Canadian researchers assume that the benefits increase the longer the drug is taken.
Despite these findings, the researchers do not recommend that older people should rush to take an NSAID. Other tests need to be carried out, and the risks may outweigh the benefits, they say.
This happens to be the view of the UK Alzheimer's Society, which points out that the NSAIDs 'can also cause serious and dangerous side-effects, such as stomach ulcers and life-threatening bleeding'.
Undeterred, researchers at University Hospital Groningen, in the Netherlands, believe that NSAIDs can fight colorectal cancer, the second most deadly cancer in the West. They point to two recent studies that discovered that a regime of 325 mg aspirin a day for up to 32 months had a moderately preventive effect against the cancer.
But the worries remain, as mooted by the Alzheimer's Society. In addition, around 20,000 in the UK and the USA die every year from an adverse reaction to an NSAID.
* Could Alzheimer's be linked to body weight? In one Swedish study, women with Alzheimer's aged between 70 and 88 tended to be overweight compared with those without Alzheimer's. But the link, if there is one, remains mysterious.
(Sources: Alzheimer's and NSAIDs-British Medical Journal, 2003; 327: 128-31. Colorectal cancer and NSAIDs-The Lancet, 2003; 362: 230-32).