Yes, aspirin can save lives. Studies have found that this inexpensive pain reliever helps prevent blood clots and decreases the risk of heart attacks and strokes, so it's no wonder 43 million U.S. adults—19.3 percent of all Americans over 18 and nearly half of all Americans 65 or older—take an aspirin every day or every other day. "There's no mystery," says New York University cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, a spokesman for the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women Campaign and and author of "Dr. Nieca Goldberg's Complete Guide to Women's Health." "Unlike other medications, it's been around for a long time."
But that doesn't mean it's a good idea for everyone. One problem: too much of it can cause gastrointestinal upsets and stomach bleeding. How much is too much? Doctors generally recommend that at-risk adults take 81 milligrams (a baby aspirin or low-dose adult aspirin). Higher doses increase the risk of bleeding. "People who take aspirin do notice that if they nick themselves shaving, it's harder to stop the bleeding," says Dr. Stephen Persell of Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. Aspirin also isn't a good idea for kids or even teens because of the risk of Reye's syndrome, which can cause brain swelling and even death in young people.
Before becoming a regular aspirin user, ask your doctor about two issues: "What's your risk for developing cardiovascular disease like heart attack" and "what's your risk of having bleeding in your stomach," says Persell. Risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and diabetes. To figure out your risk of heart disease, based on factors like your gender, your age, your blood pressure, your cholesterol and whether you smoke, visit the National Institutes of Health online calculator. "A woman in her 40s or 50s who doesn't have other risk factors has a very low risk of having a heart attack, but a bleeding ulcer would be a bad thing for her," says Persell.