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Some interesting news has come out of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston about flu vaccines.
But it’s not about influenza. Strange, I know, but true…
Their research discovered a very interesting link between getting the flu vaccine and the odds of getting Alzheimer’s.
Now you may wonder what in the world the two have in common. Weirder yet, you may wonder what any vaccine has to do with Alzheimer’s — because this isn’t the first time a connection has been made.
In fact, two studies have shown that getting the flu or pneumonia vaccine could lower your risk of developing Alzheimer’s as much as 40 percent. So should we start calling them Alzheimer’s vaccines?
Not so fast. After all, these vaccines go after two different kinds of viral diseases. But they have one specific thing in common with Alzheimer’s…
Activating your immune system against Alzheimer’s
In the Texas study, researchers compared the risk of Alzheimer’s disease incidence between patients with and without prior flu vaccination in a large nationwide sample of U.S. adults aged 65 and older.
“We found that flu vaccination in older adults reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease for several years. The strength of this protective effect increased with the number of years that a person received an annual flu vaccine — in other words, the rate of developing Alzheimer’s was lowest among those who consistently received the flu vaccine every year,” said first-study author Avram S. Bukhbinder, MD.
This same group of researchers came to the same conclusions two years earlier, but with a smaller group of study participants. The current study analyzed an impressive 935,887 flu-vaccinated patients and 935,887 non-vaccinated patients.
When following up with these participants over four years, they found about 5.1 percent of flu-vaccinated patients developed Alzheimer’s disease, while 8.5 percent of non-vaccinated patients developed the disease.
But what about the underlying mechanism? What is it about vaccines that seem to deter Alzheimer’s?
“Since there is evidence that several vaccines may protect from Alzheimer’s disease, we are thinking that it isn’t a specific effect of the flu vaccine,” said senior author Paul. E. Schulz, MD, who is also the Umphrey Family Professor in Neurodegenerative Diseases and director of the Neurocognitive Disorders Center at McGovern Medical School.
“Instead, we believe that the immune system is complex, and some alterations, such as pneumonia, may activate it in a way that makes Alzheimer’s disease worse. But other things that activate the immune system may do so in a different way — one that protects from Alzheimer’s disease. Clearly, we have more to learn about how the immune system worsens or improves outcomes in this disease.”
Vaccinations to offset Alzheimer’s risks
Many people have different feelings about vaccinations. If you get vaccinations already, this information may help you feel even more satisfied. If you don’t like to get vaccinations you may change your mind and hop on the bandwagon. Or you may want to know more about how else to activate your immune system in a way that’s protective.
Much research has linked vitamin D to the immune system as well as to reducing the risks of Alzheimer’s. Does that mean vitamin D may be one of those “other things” Professor Shutz is referring to that activate the immune system in a way that protects against Alzheimer’s?
That didn’t fall into the scope of his research, but here’s what other researchers have found about vitamin D, the immune system and Alzheimer’s and dementia…
In 2017 researchers in Austria re-reviewed six strong studies on vitamin D and dementia and determined that low vitamin D is linked to an increased risk of dementia. The most dramatic example? Those with very low vitamin D levels had a 122 percent higher risk of developing dementia than those with higher levels. They also found that vitamin D deficiency of any kind (severe or moderate) was tied to a 51 percent higher risk of developing dementia.
What’s possibly behind vitamin D’s seemingly protective effects against dementia and Alzheimer’s? A significant study published in the Frontiers of Immunology in 2022 confirmed that vitamin D (specifically vitamin D3, which provides five times the relative biological activity of vitamin D2) has a direct impact on balancing the immune system.
A balanced immune system is one that’s able to respond properly when activated. But another way that vitamin D may activate the immune system has to do with antimicrobial peptides known as cathelicidins. When sunshine meets your skin to produce vitamin D3, it also activates the gene expression of cathelicidins. Then cathelicidins activate the body’s immune cells to do their jobs.
It’s possible to suppose that vitamin D is one of those things that has a positive effect on activating the immune system in a way that’s protective. Because a deficiency certainly appears to make it worse. Hopefully one day, we will have the definitive research that settles that question once and for all.
Until then, consider these findings from Australia…
“Vitamin D is a hormone precursor that is increasingly recognized for widespread effects, including on brain health, but until now it has been very difficult to examine what would happen if we were able to prevent vitamin D deficiency,” says Elina Hyppönen, senior investigator and UniSA professor.
“In some contexts, where vitamin D deficiency is relatively common, our findings have important implications for dementia risks,” she adds. “Indeed, in this UK population, we observed that up to 17 percent of dementia cases might have been avoided by boosting vitamin D levels to be within a normal range.”
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