In their introduction, corresponding author Anne Börjesson-Hanson and colleagues explain that many studies have looked at the effect of non-steroidal anti- inflammatory drugs (NSAID) on cognitive decline and dementia, but few have looked at the effect of aspirin on these conditions.
Yet, while researchers have proposed that inflammation might be important in the development of cognitive decline and cardiovascular diseases, and low dose aspirin is widely prescribed to prevent cardiovascular disease, no study has yet examined the effect of aspirin on cognitive function in people at high cardiovascular risk.
For their study, the researchers followed 681 women aged between 70 and 92 for five years. 129 of the women were already taking aspirin at daily doses ranging from 75 and 160 mg, and after undergoing baseline assessments, 601 were classed as having high cardiovascular risk.
Over the study period, the participants underwent more tests of cognitive and thinking skills, including one commonly used in the UK to diagnose dementia, the Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE).
The results showed that while the MMSE scores for the overall group fell over the five years of the study, it fell less for those women taking aspirin.
But although other tests of memory and thinking showed a similar pattern, those results were not statistically significant.
By the end of the study, 41 of the participants developed dementia, but the rate was no different between those on aspirin and those who weren't.
In discussing the possible limitations of their study, the authors say they can't rule out that people with incipient cognitive decline might be less likely to take aspirin anyway.
They conclude that low-dose aspirin treatment "may have a neuroprotective effect in elderly women at high cardiovascular risk".
Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer's Research UK, says in a press release:
"The results provide interesting insight into the importance of cardiovascular health on cognition, but we would urge people not to self-medicate with aspirin to try to stave off dementia."
He points out the study found no benefit from aspirin on overall dementia rates, and that previous trials investigating potential benefits of drugs like aspirin for dementia have been negative.
"We know that keeping our heart healthy through regular exercise, a healthy diet, not smoking and keeping our blood pressure and cholesterol in check, can help to reduce the risk of dementia," says Ridley, adding that research into risk factors for cognitive decline must nevertheless become a top priority in the UK because of its increasingly aging population.
Many people take a low dose of aspirin every day to lower their risk of a further heart attack or stroke, or if they have a high risk of either. However, while some might say this is a good idea, there are others who think perhaps not. If you are considering taking it, you should discuss it with your doctor first. For more information on this debate, you may wish to see our earlier article on Daily Aspirin - More Benefit Than Risk?.
Written by Catharine Paddock PhD