Can a Flu Shot Reduce Your Risk of Alzheimer’s? Get a Flu or Pneumonia Shot!

Every year, Marion contemplates whether to get her flu shot. She hasn’t gotten one in the past, but then again, she hasn’t had the flu for nearly five years. This year she is also eligible for a no-cost pneumonia vaccine through Medicare. New research has prompted Marion to change her tune and get a flu shot every year from now on, and she plans to get the recommended 2 different types of pneumonia vaccines also. This research, released this week at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, says that flu shots and pneumonia shots may do more than prevent flu and pneumonia — they also help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s!

Studies Show Flu and Pneumonia Shots Offer Reduction in Alzheimer’s Risk

Two new studies, presented this week at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, suggest that getting the flu shot may also protect people from getting Alzheimer’s in the future. These two studies confirm findings in several prior studies.

In the first new study, a team of researchers based at the University of Texas studied medical records of over 9,000 people, and found that those over the age of 60 who’d received at least one flu shot had a 17% reduction in risk of Alzheimer’s. Those who got regular flu shots (meaning once a year, most years) saw an additional 30% reduction in risk. Albert Amran, the study’s author, told NPR, “More vaccinations meant less Alzheimer’s.”

The second study was led by a team of researchers based at Duke University and the University of North Carolina who studied medical records of over 5,000 people over 65. They found that those who received a pneumonia vaccine before the age of 75 were 25% less likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. (The pneumonia vaccine is typically administered to people under age 2 or over age 65, though smokers and those with certain medical conditions may be vaccinated as younger adults.)

“This is an encouraging finding that builds upon prior evidence that vaccination against common infectious diseases — such as the flu — is associated with a reduced risk for Alzheimer’s and a delay in disease onset,” said neurologist Dr. Richard Isaacson, founder of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medical Center, who was not involved in the studies.

How These Vaccines Offer Protection Against Alzheimer’s

It’s unclear how and why these vaccines might offer protection against Alzheimer’s, though previous research has hinted at a connection. Scientist offer several potential explanations, as follows:

• According to Isaacson, “regular use of the flu vaccine, especially starting at an early age, may help prevent viral infections that could cause cascading effects on the immune system and inflammatory pathways. These viral infections may trigger Alzheimer’s related cognitive decline.”

• Vaccines for the flu and pneumonia may be protective because the two diseases they are designed to prevent are known to affect the brain. “Every time you have one of these infections, you may experience a challenge to your memory and thinking,” says Maria Carrillo, chief science officer of the Alzheimer’s Association. “And studies suggest that those events can increase a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s.”

• Another possibility involves evidence linking Alzheimer’s to a general weakening in the immune system and to changes that allow more bacteria and viruses into the brain.

• Scientists also say that vaccines, including those for flu and pneumonia, might be capable of improving immunity overall. And if we have some general means of improving immunity, it might help reduce Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists are looking at several other potential candidates, including vaccines against herpes viruses and tuberculosis.

Experts say that more studies are needed to further pin down the relationship between the use of vaccines and the reduced risk of Alzheimer’s.

Why It’s Wise to Get Flu and Pneumonia Shots

Starting in late August/early September, pharmacies and doctors offices offer vaccinations in preparation for the upcoming flu season, which typically lasts from October to April.

Medical professionals agree it is wise for most people to get flu shots every to help protect you from the flu (and now, as a possible added bonus, to possibly help prevent Alzheimer’s, as the latest research shows).

Pneumonia Vaccines

There are two different vaccines for pneumonia:

• Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13 or Prevnar 13®) protects against 13 of the most common bacteria that cause pneumonia.

• Pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23 or Pneumovax23®) protects against an additional 23 types of pneumonia bacteria.

How Often to Get the Pneumonia Vaccines

How Often to Get the Pneumonia vaccines depends on age and your current immunization status. The CDC recommends two pneumococcal vaccines for all adults 65 years or older. Seniors should receive one dose of PCV13 first, followed by one dose of PPSV23 at least one year later. If you have already received any doses of PPSV23, one dose of PCV13 should be given at least one year after receipt of the most recent PPSV23 dose.

Medicare Covers the Pneumonia Vaccine

Currently, Medicare Part B pays for both of these pneumococcal vaccines when given one year apart.

Many people underestimate the health risks from flu or pneumonia, which can both prove to be deadly. Thousands of Americans die from flu-related complications in a typical year. In fact, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu has killed between 12,000 and 61,000 people annually in the United States since 2010. Flu and pneumonia combined consistently rank among the top 10 causes of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Getting a shot isn’t a perfect defense against flu or pneumonia. Some years the strains used to make vaccines aren’t a good match for the type of flu that eventually strikes. But vaccination remains the most reliable way to reduce the risk for illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all adults get vaccinated against flu every year. The options for the flu vaccine this year include a shot that protects against the three different flu strains the World Health Organization predicts will be circulating. There are also shots that include protection against four strains. There is also a nasal spray that studies show is as effective as the flu shot, but the nasal spray is not recommended for adults over age 50, nor does it appear that it has been tested in connection with Alzheimer’s prevention. And adults ages 65 and up have the option to get a high-dose flu shot, yet another variation.

As with all vaccines, there is a degree of controversy, and some people and groups believe that the flu vaccine may actually contribute to causing Alzheimer’s or other cognitive impairment. This is due to the fact that some vaccines contain a preservative called thimerosal, which contains a very low level of a type of mercury that is relatively quickly metabolized by the human body and excreted. For the 2019-2020 season, a small percentage of influenza vaccines contained thimerosal — only multidose vial presentations of influenza vaccines contain thimerosal. Last season approximately 85% of projected vaccine supply produced was in single-dose vials free of thimerosal. According to the CDC and all research for over two decades, vaccines with thimerosal are completely safe. Although there is no evidence that thimerosal causes harm when used in vaccines, there are other options today that do not contain this ingredient if you’d rather avoid it. What’s most important is that you get vaccinated against the flu, especially if you are elderly and/or at high risk for flu-related complications.

Take Care of Yourself and Your Loved Ones

At the Farr Law Firm, we care about our client’s health, quality of life, and well-being, which is why we share this sort of information. Remember, part of taking care of yourself is planning for your future and for your loved ones. If you have not done your own Incapacity Planning or Estate Planning, or if you are caring for a loved one who is beginning to need more care than you can handle, please contact us as soon as possible.

In addition, if you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, the time to plan is now. At the Farr Law Firm, we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering from dementia and their loved ones. We help protect the family’s hard-earned assets while maintaining your loved one’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits such as Medicaid and Veterans Aid and Attendance. If you or a loved one is suffering from Alzheimer’s or any other type of dementia, please call us to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Elder Care Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Elder Care Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Elder Care Rockville: 301-519-8041
Elder Care DC: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.