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Protect Your Brain with a Poke in the Arm

There's new research to encourage you to keep your immunizations up to date.


Just when you might be feeling a little sick of shots, there's new research to encourage you to get your immunizations up to date. There may be a cognitive health benefit from recommended vaccines, including the flu shot, the COVID-19 booster, and for those 50-plus, the shingles vaccine.

Don't forget your flu shot

Flu season is upon us. The virus typically circulates from October through May, and outbreaks peak in December and January. So, if you haven’t had a flu jab yet, don’t put it off any longer. Research from the University of Texas Health Science Center compared close to 1 million flu-vaccinated people 65 and older with an equal number of unvaccinated peers. They found that in this population, a single flu vaccine reduced the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 40% over four years.

Even more promising—the results of this multi-year study showed that not only does a single jab of the flu vaccine seem to offer protection, but this protective effect increased with the number of years that a person received an annual flu vaccine. In other words, the more regularly a person gets the flu shot, the better their cognitive outcome. 

Building on these findings, a large-scale research study in Denmark found that older adults who contract respiratory infections such as flu and pneumonia have a three-and-a-half times greater risk for Alzheimer’s than those that don’t.

This is your brain on COVID-19

From an increased risk of brain fog to an acceleration of dementia, COVID-19 can be bad news for your brain health. A 2022 study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that older people diagnosed with COVID-19 had a 50% to 80% higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s within a year of the illness. The highest risk was in women 85 years and older.

In fact, milder cognitive issues and memory problems, sometimes referred to as brain fog, are among the most common symptoms of long-haul COVID-19, regardless of the severity of the illness. Fortunately, in most cases, the brain fog lifts within six to nine months. But, in some cases, cognitive changes can last up to two years.

US government researchers may have found the reason for this widespread brain disruption. Studying the effects of COVID-19 on mice and humans, scientists observed that the virus can cause inflammation in the brain and change how some brain cells behave.

While researchers are relatively sure that COVID-19 doesn’t cause Alzheimer’s, they suspect it may speed its onset in people who are at high risk or in the early stages of the disease at the time of infection.

Protecting yourself against this novel virus (through vaccines, boosters, and other health and safety precautions) may preserve your brain health in the short and long term.

Don't skip the shingles vaccine

The same virus (varicella-zoster) causes both shingles and chickenpox. So, if you contracted chickenpox as a child, then you're at risk for contracting shingles. The best way to avoid this painful, blistering rash that develops on one side of your face or body is to get a vaccine, called Shingrix, at age 50 or older. The vaccine is delivered in two doses, spaced two to six months apart.

If preventing a painful rash isn't motivation enough, consider this: A recent study in Alzheimer’s & Dementia Translational Research & Clinical Interventions showed a clear association of shingles vaccination with reduced dementia. And another study from the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society concluded that getting both the shingles and Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) vaccinations was significantly associated with a 50% lower risk of dementia.

Vaccination timing: Worried about loading up on three disease-preventing vaccines all at once? The CDC states that getting all three vaccines back to back is okay. However, because each vaccine may come with minor side effects like fatigue or muscle pain, you may want to space them out.