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Half a million medical records link viruses to neurodegeneration
A review of about 500,000 medical records has revealed that severe viral infections increase the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Scientists from the National Institutes of Health found 22 connections between viral infections and neurodegenerative conditions in their study of around 450,000 people.
Senior author Michael Nalls, a neurogeneticist at the National Institute on Aging, says the impetus for this study came when he and other scientists read previous research linking the Epstein-Barr virus with a 32-fold increased risk of multiple sclerosis.
“After reading [this] study, we realized that for years scientists had been searching — one-by-one — for links between an individual neurodegenerative disorder and a specific virus,” says Dr. Nalls.
“That’s when we decided to try a different, more data science-based approach,” he said. “By using medical records, we were able to systematically search for all possible links in one shot.”
The viral link to neurodegenerative disease
The research team analyzed the medical records of around 35,000 Finns with six different types of neurodegenerative diseases.
They found 45 links between viral exposure and neurodegenerative diseases, then narrowed this to 22 links when they analyzed another 100,000 records from the UK Biobank.
Here are some of the connections they discovered:
- People treated for viral encephalitis were 31 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease (around six percent of people with encephalitis went on to develop Alzheimer’s).
- People hospitalized for pneumonia — after catching the flu — appeared to be more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).
- Intestinal infections, meningitis and shingles, all caused by viruses, were also connected with the development of several neurodegenerative diseases.
- Some of the exposures were associated with an increased risk of neurodegeneration up to 15 years after infection.
Lower your susceptibility for viral infection
If you or a loved one has had one of these viral infections, please don’t panic.
Although there’s a pile of research linking viruses to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, the researchers are clear that their study does not demonstrate that these viruses cause neurological disease.
But this research does provide one more way to lower your risk for these terrible diseases that, as study co-author Andrew Singleton points out, “there are very few effective treatments and many risk factors” for.
“Our results support the idea that viral infections and related inflammation in the nervous system may be common — and possibly avoidable — risk factors for these types of disorders.”
What can you do on your own to lessen your susceptibility to a viral infection going forward — and lower risks for developing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s?
Supplement zinc. Research shows a “zinc burst” may regenerate an aging thymus. That’s the gland that plays a vital role in the maturation of T cells — the cells that are critical for mounting a strong immune system response. The thymus gland shrinks with age and that’s why older folks are at greater risk of infection.
Increase antioxidant intake. A 2015 study found that antioxidants can protect the thymus from free radicals and prevent age-related thymus shrinkage. Antioxidants also support against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s since the brain is particularly vulnerable to oxidative stress.
Maintain physical activity. It’s the surest way to help your thymus produce T cells like your 20-year-old immune system did. Physical exercise also lowers risk for dementia and Parkinson’s because of a common hormone produced during exercise: irisin.
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Study of 500,000 Medical Records Links Viruses to Alzheimer’s Again And Again — Science Alert
Virus exposure and neurodegenerative disease risk across national biobanks — Neuron
Longitudinal analysis reveals high prevalence of Epstein-Barr virus associated with multiple sclerosis — Science