It might seem odd to be talking about flu shots in the warm days of summer, but here at the AgingOptions Blog we’re always on the lookout for new info that can help us all live a healthier life. That’s why we were drawn to this recent article from HealthDay in which reporter Steven Reinberg describes a comprehensive new study showing how a regular flu shot can not only help you avoid serious influenza – but it can also reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease!
We were skeptical, too – but the size of the study and the credentials of the researchers made us think again. We expect you’ll feel the same.
Flu Shots Dramatically Reduce Alzheimer’s Risk
We know, we know: Getting your flu shot can feel like a chore that you’d rather avoid, no matter how you feel about shots. But there may be an added incentive you hadn’t considered: the flu vaccine may actually help to guard you against Alzheimer’s disease, according to a recent study.
In his HealthDay article, reporter Reinberg writes, “People who were vaccinated at least once over four years were 40 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s during that period, the study found.” The study was reported in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Dr. Avram Bukhbinder of Massachusetts General Hospital, the study’s lead author, said, “It might be that by preventing the infection or reducing the severity of infection, we’re mitigating the damage that influenza can cause in the brain, especially in those 65 and older.”
Common Vaccines May Have Protective Effects
But the picture gets even more intriguing. “An interesting piece of this puzzle is that it’s not just the influenza vaccine that seems to have this protective effect on Alzheimer’s and other dementias,” Bukhbinder said. “Other vaccines that adults typically receive, like tetanus, diphtheria, pneumococcus and shingles, also are associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s. It’s not quite as strong as the one that we found in this study.”
Reinberg is quick to note that this study doesn’t prove outright that the flu vaccine prevents Alzheimer’s. Certain variables probably play a role, such as a healthy lifestyle. But it’s a notable study, due to the large number of participants—almost one million—and, says HealthDay, it should be taken very seriously by the scientific community.
Flu Vaccine Boosts Immune System…In Every Way
So how does this protection work? Researchers theorize that the flu vaccine alters the immune system in such a powerful way that it attacks proteins linked to Alzheimer’s that build up in the brain. Those proteins, if left unchecked, could kill the nerve cells—neurons—around them, causing Alzheimer’s to develop.
Bukhbinder explained, “What we think might be happening is the influenza vaccine might be changing the immune system such that its response to Alzheimer’s proteins makes them not as damaging to our brain.” Could this also be true of the COVID-19 vaccine? Bukhbinder says it’s possible, but not yet proven by any studies.
HealthDay reporter Reinberg says, “A vaccine advisory panel to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended that people 65 and older get one of the more potent flu shots designed to give older adults more robust protection.” Bukhbinder agrees with this decision, and would like further studies to prove the efficacy of more potent vaccines. He said, “This extra-strength influenza vaccine, which seems to be more protective against the actual infection, was just officially recommended by the CDC, which is fantastic.”
Not A Guarantee, But A Compelling Reason
In the study, Bukhbinder led a team who compared the Alzheimer’s risk among almost one million seniors, a number of whom had received flu shots and a similar number who did not. “During four years of follow-up,” Reinberg writes, “about 5 percent of those who had flu vaccine developed Alzheimer’s, compared to nearly 9 percent of those who were not vaccinated, researchers found.”
Bukhbinder adds, “I think this is another compelling reason to get vaccinated against influenza. It’s not a guarantee that it’s going to stop you from getting Alzheimer’s, but it really seems it’s adding to the compelling nature of the vaccine.”
It May Come Down to Lifestyle Choices
The study has been well received by the scientific community, though cautiously. Heather Snyder, vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association, reviewed the study and had some hesitations about the variables. Snyder believes that lifestyle choices might be more at play here than the study suggests. People who choose to get a yearly flu shot may live more healthy lives overall, and therefore reduce the risk of dementia simply by the way they live.
“This new study suggests that flu vaccination may be valuable for maintaining cognition and memory as we age,” she said, but is hesitant to say that the flu vaccine alone is capable of lowering Alzheimer’s risk. The link simply needs more research.
“It is also possible that there are issues related to unequal access and/or vaccine hesitancy and that may influence the study population and the research results,” Snyder added.
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(originally reported at https://consumer.healthday.com)