Role of Aspirin Explored in Primary Prevention of CVD in Systemic Rheumatic Diseases

Larry Beresford

September 22, 2020

Low-dose aspirin may be considered for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in patients with autoimmune systemic rheumatic diseases who are at particularly high risk because of their individual cardiovascular risk profile, according to authors of a new review article in the journal Rheumatology who acknowledge the controversial nature of the issue, because while significant cardiovascular benefit from aspirin for secondary prevention is well established, it has not been for primary prevention.

Secondary prevention with daily, low-dose aspirin is part of aggressive, comprehensive risk modification in patients who have experienced an MI or stroke or are considered at high risk for CVD. But when it comes to primary prevention of the onset of disease, the authors, led by Serena Fasano, MD, PhD, of the rheumatology unit at the University of Campania, Naples, Italy, acknowledged the contradictory positions of international guidelines and uncertainty over balancing benefit versus harm – including risk of mortality in the context of excess bleeding. They called for "robust data" from high-quality randomized, controlled trials for subgroups of patients with specific rheumatologic diseases in order to better answer the question of aspirin for primary prevention.

"This review is devoted to reporting the present knowledge on the effectiveness of low-dose [aspirin] in primary CV prevention in a number of autoimmune systemic rheumatic diseases, not a systematic review or meta-analysis," the authors stated. "We are not claiming to have covered more than a selection of the literature for each disease. Available data are not high-quality data and do not provide firm conclusions."

The authors focused primarily on accelerated, rather than spontaneous, atherosclerosis or buildup of plaque in artery walls, implicated in ischemic heart diseases such as MI and ischemic cerebrovascular diseases such as stroke. They looked at its association with autoimmune rheumatic diseases, primarily systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and RA, but also including antiphospholipid syndrome, systemic sclerosis, mixed connective tissue disease, dermatomyositis/polymyositis, primary Sjögren's syndrome, and systemic vasculitis.

They shared results from a review of 167 patients with SLE consecutively admitted to their tertiary medical center who had not previously experienced a cardiovascular event and who were prescribed low-dose (100 mg) aspirin on their first visit and followed for 8 years. The cardiovascular event-free rate was higher in the aspirin group and no excess bleeding was noted, although this may be attributable to a younger patient population and routine use of proton pump inhibitors. Subsequently, hydroxychloroquine was added to the aspirin treatment and was associated with further reduction in cardiovascular events.

The research group also conducted a retrospective analysis of 746 patients with RA consecutively admitted to four tertiary medical centers who hadn't experienced a cardiovascular event previously. Incidence of cardiovascular events was significantly lower in aspirin-treated patients.

Individualized Aspirin Prescribing With Cardiologist Comanagement

There may be a modest benefit of using low-dose aspirin on a long-term basis, but that benefit needs to be offset by the risk of bleeds, said M. Elaine Husni, MD, MPH, vice chair of rheumatology and director of the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Center at the Cleveland Clinic. It's important to remind clinicians of cardiovascular risk, she said. "But the message for rheumatologists is it needs to be prescribed on an individual basis, rather than based on diagnosis of a rheumatic condition – at least until we have better evidence."

Dr. M. Elaine Husni

Dr. Husni recommended keeping an open mind regarding individual approaches – for example, low-dose aspirin plus statins. A composite approach to prevention likely is called for, including attention to lifestyle issues such as smoking cessation, exercise, and weight loss. "That kind of complexity in decision-making highlights the need for comanagement with a cardiologist," she said. "I'm a big believer in comanagement. At my multidisciplinary medical center, I am able to pick up the phone and talk to a cardiologist with whom our group has a relationship." If physicians don't have that kind of relationship with a cardiology group, she suggested reaching out to establish one.

The review paper could give some guidance to rheumatologists for use on an individual case, Michael Nurmohamed, MD, PhD, of the Amsterdam Rheumatology and Immunology Center in the Netherlands commented in an interview. "However, firm recommendations cannot be given as proper investigations are still lacking, as acknowledged by the authors. In addition, the review paper itself has some methodological constraints. Although this is a narrative review, the search strategy should have been specified, and a quality assessment of the individual studies is lacking."

Dr. Michael T. Nurmohamed

There is no doubt that the CVD burden in RA and other rheumatologic conditions is substantially increased in comparison to the general population, Dr. Nurmohamed said. That has been assessed by several well-designed, prospective, controlled studies. Other relatively frequent inflammatory arthropathies, including ankylosing spondylitis and psoriatic arthritis, also pose cardiovascular risk.

"Aspirin cannot be recommended for primary CVD prevention in inflammatory arthropathies due to the absence of adequate studies. That's why the EULAR [European League Against Rheumatism] guidelines did not recommend its use," he said. Currently, a EULAR task force is developing evidence-based guidelines for primary CVD prevention in the diseases discussed by Fasano et al., where the use of aspirin will be reassessed. "As these guidelines will consider the methodological quality of the underlying studies, they will enable a more refined use of aspirin in daily clinical practice."

Dr. Ronald F. van Vollenhoven

Primary prevention of CVD using aspirin is not currently the standard of care in taking care of patients with rheumatologic disease in the Netherlands, Ronald F. van Vollenhoven, MD, PhD, Dr. Nurmohamed's colleague and director of the Amsterdam Rheumatology and Immunology Center and the chair of the department of rheumatology and clinical immunology at the Amsterdam University Medical Center, said in an interview.

"One reason may be the limited data, as highlighted in the review by Dr. Fasano and colleagues. However, another consideration is the problem of polypharmacy. Rheumatic diseases usually require chronic treatment, sometimes with multiple medications. This makes it even more of a concern to add an additional medication, even a relatively innocuous one such as low-dose aspirin," he said.

Dr. Husni, Dr. Nurmohamed, and Dr. van Vollenhoven reported having no relevant disclosures. The authors of the review article had no relevant disclosures.

SOURCE: Fasano S et al. Rheumatology. 2020 Aug 25. doi: 10.1093/rheumatology/keaa335.

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