USPSTF Statement on Aspirin: Poor Messaging at Best

Melissa Walton-Shirley, MD


October 19, 2021

The recent U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) draft statement on aspirin use is concerning: "The USPSTF concludes with moderate certainty that initiating aspirin use for the primary prevention of CVD events in adults age 60 years or older has no net benefit." I take no issue with the data and appreciate the efforts of the researchers, but at a minimum the public statement is incomplete. At most, it's dangerously poor messaging.

As physicians, we understand how best to apply this information, but most lay people, some at significant cardiovascular risk, closed their medicine cabinets this morning and left their aspirin bottle unopened on the shelf. Some of these patients have never spent an hour in the hospital for cardiac-related issues, but they have mitigated their risk for myocardial infarction by purposely poisoning their platelets daily with 81 mg of aspirin. And they should continue to do so.

Don't Forget the Calcium Score

Take, for instance, my patient Jack, who is typical of many patients I've seen throughout the years. Jack is 68 years old and has never had a cardiac event or a gastrointestinal bleed. His daily routine includes a walk, a statin, and a baby aspirin because his CT coronary artery calcium (CAC) score was 10,000 at age 58.

He first visited me 10 years ago because his father died of a myocardial infarction in his late 50s. Jack's left ventricular ejection fraction is normal and his stress ECG shows 1-mm ST-segment depression at 8 minutes on a Bruce protocol stress test, without angina. Because Jack is well-educated and keeps up with the latest cardiology recommendations, he is precisely the type of patient who may be harmed by this new USPSTF statement by stopping his aspirin.

In October 2020, an analysis from the DALLAS Heart Study showed that persons with a CAC score greater than 100 had a higher cumulative incidence of bleeding and of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD) events compared with those with no coronary calcium. After adjustment for clinical risk factors, the association between CAC and bleeding was attenuated and no longer statistically significant, whereas the relationship between CAC and ASCVD remained.

I asked one of the investigators, Amit Khera, MD, MSc, from UT Southwestern Medical Center, about the latest recommendations. He emphasized that both the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association prevention guidelines and the USPSTF statement say that aspirin still could be considered among patients who are at higher risk for cardiovascular events. The USPSTF delineated this as a 10-year ASCVD risk greater than 10%.

Khera, who was an author of the 2019 guidelines, explained that the guideline committee purposely did not make specific recommendations as to what demarcated higher risk because the data were not clear at that time. Since then, a couple of papers, including the Dallas Heart Study analysis published in JAMA Cardiology, showed that patients at low bleeding risk with a calcium score above 100 may get a net benefit from aspirin. "Thus, in my patients who have a high calcium score and low bleeding risk, I do discuss the option to start or continue aspirin," he said.

One Size Does Not Fit All

I watched ABC World News Tonight on Tuesday, October 12, and was immediately troubled about the coverage of the USPSTF statement. With viewership for the "Big Three" networks in the millions, the message to discontinue aspirin may have unintended consequences for many at-risk patients. The blood-thinning effects of a single dose of aspirin last about 10 days; it will be interesting to see if the rates of myocardial infarction increase over time. This could have been avoided with a better-worded statement—I'm concerned that the lack of nuance could spell big trouble for some.

In JAMA Cardiology, Khera and colleagues wrote that, "Aspirin use is not a one-size-fits-all therapy." All physicians likely agree with that opinion. The USPSTF statement should have included the point that if you have a high CT coronary artery calcium score and a low bleeding risk, aspirin still fits very well even if you haven't experienced a cardiac event. At a minimum, the USPSTF statement should have included the suggestion for patients to consult their physician for advice before discontinuing aspirin therapy.

I hope patients like Jack get the right message.

Melissa Walton-Shirley, MD, is a native Kentuckian who retired from full-time invasive cardiology. She enjoys locums work and is a champion of physician rights and patient safety. In addition to opinion writing, she also enjoys spending time with her husband and daughters and sidelines as a backing vocalist for local rock bands.

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