Vitamin D and Aspirin: Fast track to a longer life

Two weeks ago, Science Magazine featured a special section on Disease Prevention. Two articles featured cheap, easy and widely effective measures that lower risks of all major diseases of old age: they talked about daily aspirin and increasing blood levels of vitamin D.

Daily baby aspirin is associated with lower risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia and several kinds of cancer. Even better, ibuprofen does all this and also lowers risk of Parkinson’s disease.

Blood levels of vitamin D are associated with lower incidence of most cancers, heart disease, and dementia. Vitamin D protects against brittle bones and auto-immune diseases and dramatically lowers the incidence of cold and flu. Also “asthma, diabetes, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and cognitive decline.”  In one study, children whose daily milk was fortified with vitamin D caught half as many colds as children without supplementation.

Side effects for aspirin are limited to a small segment of the population that experiences stomach problems – non-fatal and temporary; for vitamin D, the downside is largely hypothetical. Still, the medical community is not ready to recommend either D or aspirin as a prophylactic for an aging population. Why not?

Is it because of the Hippocratic commitment to “do no harm”? I think not. After all, America is awash in expensive drugs we don’t need and millions of unnecessary surgeries are performed each year. Is it because there’s no capitalist lobbying engine to support these cheap, unpatentable supplements? Yes, that’s some of it.

But there’s also a source of medical conservatism that’s built into the culture of “natural”. We’re reluctant to tamper with nature because “mother knows best”. The body is a finely-tuned machine, and it is much easier to do harm than good if we tamper with our natural metabolism – so the story goes.

It’s only since the 1960s that the culture of “natural” has been dominant. Before that was an age when modern science was held in reverence, when tonsils were removed routinely because doctors saw no use for them, and when scientifically-designed infant formula was prescribed in preference to breastfeeding.

Now, I’m as crunchy as the next guy. Organic foods are tastier and more nutritious, don’t expose us to pesticides, and contribute to sustainable agriculture as a bonus.  I’m all for it.  But the point that most people (and most doctors) still don’t realize is that a natural diet is useless against diseases of old age.

That’s because aging itself is “natural”. Providing a natural life style can help prevent many things from going wrong with our bodies. But aging isn’t something that goes wrong. Aging is something the body is designed to do. The body is self-destructing on a schedule. If we want to slow down aging, we can’t do that by being good to our bodies and supporting them to do their best. We’re going to have to disrupt the body’s program, to thwart the pathways of self-destruction.

The paradigm that brought us natural foods is this: Modern man lives in an environment full of stresses and toxins to which our hunter-gatherer ancestors were never exposed. We are not evolved to deal with a diet of high fructose corn syrup and GM soy and beef laden with growth hormone.

Absolutely. I avoid eating all these, and hope that you do as well. But these toxins have nothing to do with the reason we get heart disease or dementia, and they’re only weakly related to cancer risk. The reason that we get heart disease and cancer is that, after a certain age, self-destruction is programmed into our genes. Our bodies’ immune systems begin to shut down. Inflammation is dialed up and begins to attack healthy tissue in our joints, our arteries, and our brains.

The insults suffered from environmental toxins of modern life are like a drop in the ocean compared to the damage that the body suffers from its own programmed self-destruction.

Doctors are loathe to prescribe asprin and vitamin D to the aging public because they’re not part of our “natural” heritage. This thinking is deeply flawed, because it derives from a fundamental misunderstanding of what aging is.

I don’t know whether super-high levels of vitamin D are “natural” to our evolutionary past, and I don’t think it matters much. And there’s nothing at all “natural” about aspirin. But there’s a huge body of epidemiology that points to multiple benefits from both vitamin D and aspirin, particularly in the diseases of old age. My counsel is to go for it.

My bottom line recommendation is this: If you’re over 50, take a daily baby aspirin or ibuprofen, unless it gives your stomach trouble. And ask to have your vit D levels assayed the next time your doctor draws blood. Our bodies vary widely in the ability to absorb vitamin D, and to process it into the di-hydroxy form in which it circulates in the blood. Conservative doctors are recommending blood levels of 50, while advocates say that we might benefit from levels over 100. Most American are under 50, and a quarter or more are under 25. You may be in range just from spending time outdoors and eating fish, but you won’t know until you get results of a blood test. Personally, I have increased my daily intake to 15,000 IU just to get my blood levels into the recommended range*.

* An IU of vitamin D is tiny. The standard dose of 400 IU is only 10 micrograms, which is a barely-visible speck. Even mega-doses come in small pills.

20 thoughts on “Vitamin D and Aspirin: Fast track to a longer life

    • Inflammation serves a beneficial function in all people, but in older people the negative outweighs the positive. I don’t know about your individual circumstance, but for most people, it makes sense to wait until age 50 before taking daily aspirin.

  1. As an objective visitor, with your advice and opinions on a long life, you jump on a trend the exact same way like the trends you consider wrong. The trend is now anti – antioxidants – so you write about the positive effects of anti-inflammation, forgetting about the also proven negative effects of e.g. fish-oil and ginger;
    You advise vitamin d and ass and forget about stone-formation with vitamn d doses above 5000IU (as discussed on international congresses of internal medicine) and the big risks of ASS of gastro-intestinal bleeding. There is a reason that instead of the proven benefits of low dose ASS against colon cancer ( and only FEW others) no counsil recommends taking ASS to everyone.
    Same with studies of aortic plaque formation under high fish-oil ( the thing you want to prevent). Or the fact that fish-oil doesn’t lower stroke risk but fish does……
    Selenium…….
    So all in all, you just cite the studies you believe in, that confirm your opinion on the subject. We still just don’t know what amount of what is best. Right know, noone can give evidence based recommendations to the extent that you do. You might even harm people by doing so.
    The benefit of antioxidants and antiinflammatories will hopefully clear up in the future, right now we still don’t know enough.

    • > also proven negative effects of e.g. fish-oil and ginger
      I’ve seen very little on risks of fish oil or ginger, so I would be eager to read whatever you can point me to on the subject.

      > big risks of ASS of gastro-intestinal bleeding
      It’s a big risk for a very small number of people. Most people tolerate low dose aspirin or ibuprofen very well.

      > The benefit of antioxidants and antiinflammatories will hopefully clear up in the future, right now we still don’t know enough.
      Of course, we would all like more information and, most important, better data. There are so many contradictory studies that it is difficult to make sense of it all.

      In the mean time, there are many of us trying to make reasonable decisions for our health based on partial data.

      The general advice in this column will not be right for everyone. Metabolism varies widely from one person to the next, and we all need to experiment on ourselves to know what works best. The science of individual-based medicine is in its infancy.

      > Or the fact that fish-oil doesn’t lower stroke risk but fish does……
      I’ve read studies that support lower stroke risk from fish oil. For example
      http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=193470

      “There is little doubt that long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCn-3PUFAs) in fish are the key nutrients responsible for the benefits and are important for CVD prevention.” http://europepmc.org/abstract/MED/19732603

      But you have a good point, that most studies do not separate whole fish from fish oil so that a direct comparison of the benefits can be made.

      Tell me more about selenium, if you would…

  2. Yes, but I believe Dr. Davis has written about the ingestion of Vitamin D3 causing a buildup of calcium in the aortic valve and other places other than bones and teeth where it can do damage… any info on that? Great blog, by the way, glad I (just) found it.

  3. Just wondering if you also recommend Vit A and Vit K2 to go along with the Vit D. Supplementing, i raised my Vit D blood levels to 63 but i’m also taking A and K2. My understanding of K2 is that it helps the body use calcium correctly, which is important when boosting Vit D levels. That may help address diamonddave’s concern.

    • If you take vitamin D and calcium take vitamin K2 also, or your aortic heart valve will calcify and not open enough. You will get chest pains when you exercise, get excited or get cold (any time your heartbeat gets over 100 per second). Then they will have to cut your chest open and replace the valve with a pig or cow valve.

  4. I have such painful tendonitis in both arms from shoulders to elbows .I wanted to know if taking Vit d would help the pain , now still don’t know . I’m on low dose aspirin a day

    • Viv, tendons are primarily made up of collagen. Collagen gets depleted as we age as part of the body’s self destruction mechanism. Eg. as adults, we lose about 1% of skin collagen every year. There is no stopping this process, as far as I know. However, damaged collagen in tendons is repaired by the body, but at a much slower pace, as we age. Vitamin C is required for the production of collagen. Also, there are some drugs, which are known to cause the destruction of collagen, including fluoroquinolone antibiotics. This is no medical advice, but you could try a collagen peptide supplement combined with vitamin c. Good luck!

        • yes Jerry, in fact collagen is what binds us together. I’m not sure, if there has been made any studies, if the collagen degradation is systemic e.g. if collagen surrounding our inner organs degrade as we age, but I see no reason, why collagen loss would be limited to just tendons and skin.

  5. Josh, for the past 4 -5 years I have been taking aspirin each day.. Approximately 70mlgs ..

    I recently had chest pains during a long walk. I had a checkup with my GP and he discovered in blood tests that I was severely anemic..And prescribed blood transfusion and iron tablets.. Stool tests also showed up occult blood..I stopped taking the aspirin and then retested for blood in stool. This time the results were negative.

    All very interesting !

    But I also know that low dose aspirin is good for many reasons. So I am perplexed as to what to do. I am now considering Ibuprufen. Any thoughts on this.

    • Hi, Bill.

      I think that there’s always a chance of minor bleeding from taking aspirin (I read it somewhere). This might be a good thing if trying to lower ferritin levels for cardiovascular reasons (blood donation or phlebotomy are also advised). But in your case maybe you took it too far and from trying to prevent blood clots it brought about other complications.

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