Last updated: May 04, 2008

The only serious heart medication that you can buy at a gas station, aspirin works wonders against heart disease.

Taken daily, aspirin can help prevent blood clots by keeping platelets from sticking together. It's a potential lifesaver for anyone at risk for a heart attack. And when taken during or immediately after a heart attack, aspirin can help to break up a clot and restore blood flow to the heart.

Aspirin and gender

But aspirin may work differently in men and women. One survey of studies comprising nearly 100,000 people found that aspirin therapy reduced the risk of cardiovascular events and stroke in women by 12% and 17%, respectively, but did not reduce the likelihood of a heart attack or early death.

In men, aspirin therapy slashed the risk of heart attack by 32% but didn't affect their risk for stroke.

Aspirin can also irritate the stomach even in small doses, and it doesn't always get along well with other drugs heart patients might take, especially warfarin.

The benefits outweigh the risks

Still, for those at risk for heart disease, the benefits of daily aspirin almost always outweigh the potential risks, says Thomas Lee, MD, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and editor in chief of the Harvard Heart Letter. "If you have heart disease and you're not taking aspirin, you and your doctor better have a good reason why," he says.