Elderly people are not putting themselves at greater risk of heart attack if they take the painkiller ibuprofen, a study said today.
Previous thinking had suggested the use of anti-inflammatory drugs for the management of pain and inflammation could increase the chance of heart disease.
But a large-scale study in Australia found the overall effect of taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) is neutral when it comes to heart disease.
The study also found an association between the use of the drugs and a reduction in the risk of dying from any cause, although scientists are not sure why.
The findings were based on a study which looked at a nationwide hospital admission and pharmacy prescription database of 320,000 elderly Australians.
Researchers looked at anti-inflammatory drugs which, with the exception of ibuprofen, generally require a prescription.
The study was led by Professor Arduino Mangoni, who recently joined the University of Aberdeen from Flinders University in Adelaide.
He said: "Heart disease represents one of the main causes of death and long-term disability in the elderly population and the burden of heart disease is likely to increase in the future due to the progressive ageing of the population.
"Thinking up until now suggests that the use of anti-inflammatory drugs, for the management of pain and inflammation in a number of disorders affecting the musculoskeletal system, increases the risk of heart disease. Concerns over the potential risk associated with the use of NSAIDs have been expressed in a recent statement by the American Heart Association.
"However, the evidence of a link between NSAIDs and heart disease is controversial as several studies have failed to demonstrate a significant increase in the risk.
"The existing controversy surrounding the association between NSAIDs and heart disease prompted this large-scale Australian study.
"Unlike previous studies, we did not observe an increased risk of heart disease after considering NSAIDs as a whole, their sub-classes, and several individual drugs.
"In fact our study has demonstrated that the use of NSAIDs has overall a neutral effect on the risk of heart disease in a large elderly population with multiple co-existing medical conditions."
Researchers found that the use of NSAIDs was also associated with a lower risk of death, although they are unclear about the reasons behind it.
Professor Mangoni, who specialises in medicine in old age at Aberdeen University, said: "It could be that anti-inflammatory drugs could exert some protective effects towards heart disease and cancer, the two main killers in our ageing population.
"It might be that people on these drugs have better pain control and therefore have a less sedentary lifestyle. Or perhaps people on these drugs in our study were maybe generally healthier."
Despite the findings, Professor Mangoni said he would not advise people to take painkillers regularly, unless they are necessary.
The study is published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.