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An Aspirin a Day? The Answer Is Different for Men and Women

Throughout the ages, the differences between men and women have been the subject of plays, movies and books. Shakespeare poked fun at the topic. More recently, books with titles like "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" have explored the different ways that men and women communicate.

When it comes to health, there are also differences in what’s best for men and women. Understanding these differences makes it easier for you to take the right steps to stay healthy.

Although some differences between men and women are obvious, others are not:

* Men are 1 1/2 times more likely than women to die from heart disease, cancer and chronic lower respiratory diseases.

* Women are twice as likely as men to develop depression. They are also more likely to be obese or have migraines.

* Women, especially women over 50, are more likely to suffer from osteoporosis than men.

My agency, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), supports work to improve the quality and appropriateness of preventive care and treatment for men and women.

For example, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently issued separate recommendations for men and women on taking aspirin to prevent cardiovascular disease. The group is a leading independent panel of experts in prevention and primary care. Doctors across the nation use the task force recommendations to talk with their patients about the preventive services that are right for them.

The new task force recommendations are based on recent research indicating that the value of taking aspirin differs for men and women. For men, taking aspirin lowers the risk of heart attack. For women, it lowers the risk of stroke.

The task force also looked at recent evidence on the potential harms that taking aspirin can cause, like bleeding in the stomach. These risks vary for men and women, are different at different ages, and depend on other factors, such as use of other medications.

Taking into account the potential benefits and harms of aspirin, the task force recommends the following:

* If you’re a man who is 45 to 79 years old, you should talk to your doctor to determine whether the benefits of taking aspirin to prevent a heart attack outweigh the potential harms.

* If you’re a woman who is 55 to 79 years old, you should talk to your doctor to determine whether the benefits of taking aspirin to prevent a stroke outweigh the potential harms.

Why are these recommendations important? Because they help you and your clinician make informed decisions about what you can do to stay healthy.

It’s important for men and women to ask questions about their risks for heart attack and stroke. Understanding more about your risk for cardiovascular disease can help you take steps to reduce your risk.

AHRQ has created separate checklists for men and for women that highlight which preventive services they should get and when they should get them.

You can also find task force recommendations on a terrific online tool called myhealthfinder that AHRQ and the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion developed specifically for consumers.

Getting advice that’s specific to you will help you become a better-informed patient. And that’s good news for your health over the long run, whether you’re a man or a woman.

I’m Dr. Carolyn Clancy, and that’s my advice on how to navigate the health care system.

Carolyn M. Clancy, a general internist and researcher, is an expert in engaging consumers in their health care. She is the director of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

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