What does a medical consumer do when new scientific research contradicts long-standing health advice? In previous years, we've confronted this problem as new major studies called into question the use of aspirin, sunscreen and vitamin E. Doctors were left scrambling, and consumers felt utterly confused. Because I advocate on behalf of medical consumers in all health matters, I followed up on these issues by reviewing the studies and consulting leading experts. My findings...
Aspirin. For more than a decade, doctors have prescribed a daily baby aspirin to help prevent heart attack and stroke, especially in older people. A major study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that low dose aspirin reduces heart attack risk in all men, but only in women age 65 or older. The British Medical Journal reported that baby aspirin does not save lives or add years to life in people older than age 70 who did not already have cardiovascular disease. In fact, daily baby aspirin increased the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding. Where does this leave us?
What to do: Because the risks-benefits of aspirin therapy are highly individualized, speak to your doctor. Ask if he/she believes that these recent findings in any way change your need for aspirin therapy.
Sunscreen. For decades, medical experts have strongly recommended the liberal use of sunscreen to help prevent skin cancer. However, researchers are now realizing that sunscreen blocks the ultraviolet (UV) sun exposure that's necessary for the formation of vitamin D. Four recent studies have found that vitamin D helps protect against lymphoma, cancers of the prostate, lung and even the skin! There is stronger evidence that it helps prevent colon cancer. Unfortunately, we cannot get as much vitamin D as we need from diet and supplements alone.
What to do: Do not throw away your sunscreen. Recent studies suggest that limited sun exposure (10 to 15 minutes, a few times a week) on the face, arms, hands or back without sunscreen can do you a great deal of good. Ideally, this sun exposure should occur before 10 am and after 4 pm, when damaging UV rays are the least intense.
Vitamin E. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University analyzed 19 previous clinical trials of vitamin E and discovered that people taking daily doses of 400 international units (IU) or more per day had a higher risk of dying from any cause than people not taking the vitamin. As you probably know, vitamin E had been highly touted as a preventive for heart disease. However, none of the recent clinical trials have shown this to be true. Research on other potential benefits of vitamin E is ongoing.
What to do: If you take vitamin E, talk to your doctor. This study in no way suggests that lower doses of the vitamin-or vitamin E from food-are harmful. There simply may be better ways to prevent heart disease, such as changing your diet, exercising more and losing weight.