Here NNT.com’s David H. Newman, M.D has the surprising findings for you.
Narrative: Aspirin blocks the action of platelets, reducing clots and ostensibly lowering the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and deaths. This review examined and summarized the magnitude of benefits from daily aspirin when compared to placebo for ‘secondary prevention’, i.e. among patients who have had a recent heart attack or stroke.
Aspirin works: those taking aspirin in these studies suffered fewer heart attacks, strokes, and deaths than those taking a placebo, at the cost of a small number of bleeding events. In addition, the benefits outlined here were seen after just over two years of daily aspirin therapy, in contrast to the 4 and 5 year periods seen with many other cardiovascular preventive interventions.
Caveats: Aspirin can cause bleeding events and gastrointestinal problems (ulcers, indigestion, etc.). However the cost of generic aspirin is very low and the benefits are considerably more common than the harms, making aspirin an excellent intervention for the right patients. This intervention does not translate, however, to patients who are not at very high risk (i.e. those who have established disease). Note our related summary on the topic of aspirin for ‘primary prevention’.
For those who cannot tolerate aspirin other antiplatelet agents such as clopidogrel, ticlopidine, and related drugs are probably very reasonable and effective alternatives and seem to have similar beneficial effects, despite having more side effects.