Although there have been a number of smaller studies linking various vaccinations with lower risks for developing Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), a recent study showed a striking link between the flu vaccine and lowering the risks of developing this devastating condition.
Dementia in general is the 7th leading cause of death in the US (3rd in Britain) with Alzheimer’s accounting for as many as 70% of the cases. There are other forms such as vascular dementia (associated with heart and vascular disease), Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia (seen in people who played contact sports when they were younger, including even soccer!) and alcohol-related dementia. It is the most expensive disease to treat and manage, primarily because of the skyrocketing costs of supporting people who may be of relatively sound body, but can no longer care for themselves. Dementia is on a rapid rise and costs continue to increase, bankrupting many families as a lot of the supportive care these patients need are not covered by insurance.
Drug studies have cost billions over the years and with the exception of a relatively new drug Leqembi® (lecanemab) which only slows progression and does not reverse AD, no drug has ever been shown to be of any benefit. Even Leqembi has a significant brain-bleed risk and is very expensive. In addition to the $26,500 annual price tag for the drug, treatment could cost $82,500 per patient per year, on average, for genetic tests and frequent brain scans, safety monitoring, and other care, such as dealing with complications and hospitalization. Lecanemab is a monoclonal antibody developed against amyloid. It binds to the amyloid and helps to clear it, however it does not clear the amyloid already bound to tissues. It does significantly slow the rate of progression of AD, but only in very early stages of the disease. It is NOT a cure.
Today, 10% of Americans over 65 have some form of dementia. Over 80, the numbers rise dramatically to almost 33%.
Although there are some genetic mutations which can increase the risks of dementia, as much as 75-80% of cases are related to our lifestyle (poor diet, little exercise, too much stress, terrible sleep…) and can be prevented, delayed or slowed down dramatically.
I’ll elaborate a little below on lifestyle changes proven to prevent, delay and slow cognitive decline and dementia below, but let’s talk about vaccination for now.
This most recent study followed close to 1 million people, mostly over 65 years of age, for more than 8 years and looked specifically at the flu vaccine. If patients got the vaccine for 3 years in a row, their AD risk was reduced by 20%. If they received yearly vaccines (4-8), their risks were reduced by 40!
Although one could argue that people who get vaccinated every year probably do other things to stay healthy, this study did account for such things like sleep, exercise, diet, education and financial stability, at least to the best of their ability to eliminate these confounding factors.
Other vaccines such as the pneumococcal vaccine, shingles and DPT (diphtheria, pertussis tetanus booster) also showed lowered dementia risk in other studies, however they were much smaller studies.
Why would vaccines provide any benefit against dementia? The answer is not clear but it is hypothesized that it has to do with, in addition to not getting those infections, they lead to boosting the immune system in general, which allows inflammatory processes in the brain causing dementia to be reduced. There may be improved clearance of inflammatory amyloid plaques which build up, impairing nerve conduction in the brain. Even Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who first described this disease ~ 1900, thought that there may be an infectious/inflammatory process contributing to the disease named after him.
What about the Covid vaccine? We just don’t know yet but it will likely prove to also lower dementia risk. We already know that the SARS-Cov-2 virus does attack the brain causing neuro inflammation so preventing infection would obviously reduce that contributor to cognitive decline.
As far as other strategies to reduce the risks of dementia, or at least delay it or slow its progression, there is a lot we can do. Even if you have any of the predisposing genetic mutations. There is a saying that “genetics loads the gun but lifestyle pulls the trigger”.
EXERCISE. One study showed that even walking briskly for 40 minutes 3x a week reduced the risks and even reversed some early cognitive changes. The hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory, actually grows in those who maintain a regular exercise regimen. There are various benefits of exercise, but one significant one is that it leads to the production of BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), a molecule which improves synaptic connections in the brain and even grows brain tissue. The more you exercise, the better. All forms are good. Some resistance training adds the benefit of strengthening muscles and bones, which is also very important as we age.
SLEEP. Chronically poor sleep has a significant impact on the development of cognitive decline and dementia. Shoot for 7-8 good quality hours a night. There are lots of strategies to improve your sleep. I have a lot about this on my website linked here https://doctorchuma.com/other-wellness-issues/#SLEEP_BETTER.
NUTRITION. Diet has a huge impact on not just reducing dementia risks but mental health in general. The Chicago Health and Ageing Project, which followed tens of thousands of people for decades identified saturated fat from animal sources as the most significant contributor to dementia. Plenty of fruits and vegetables were the most protective. And yes, a whole foods, plant based diet was the healthiest.
STRESS. Chronic cortisol production (the stress hormone) leads to various changes in the body including the brain. It impacts on how the brain uses nutrients and how insulin functions in the brain. Some forms of dementia are nicknamed “Type 3 diabetes” because of how important insulin is to brain health. Obviously other things like diet impact on insulin function but stress is a biggie. Stress also impacts sleep as well.
HEARING LOSS. The MOST significant modifiable risk factor when it comes to brain health however is hearing loss! The problem with hearing loss is that the damage resulting in loss later in life starts very early and progresses very slowly so most people aren’t even aware of what they are missing. Just a couple of shows as a teenager where you left the arena with ringing in your ears is enough to cause loss later in life. Blow dryers, food processors, vacuum cleaners are examples of unexpected common everyday sources of noise. Obviously lawn mowers and leaf blowers as well as some recreational activities like hunting and loud cars can also contribute. If you are 40 or over, you should get tested. At least to know what your baseline is. Even a mild loss in your 40’s, if left unaddressed, doubles your dementia risk.
The bottom line is that there are many things you can do to reduce your risks of getting dementia or at least delay its onset or slow its progression. And vaccination is one of them.
As the number of flu and covid cases rise, it is imperative that you get vaccinated ASAP. It takes 10-14 days to reach maximal protection.
As of last week, Covid still kills about 1200 people per week. That’s 62,000 people per year, close to the worst flu season we had in decades. Remember that in the 3 years of the pandemic, Covid killed over 1 million people in the US alone.
The present Covid booster does cover the most prominent variants circulating today.
Also, doing all those other things which are protective is important (masking, distance, hygiene…).
A great reference about dementia and lifestyle measures to prevent it is “The Alzheimer’s Solution” by Dr. ‘s Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, neurologists who run the dementia clinic at Loma Linda University in California. I’ve linked the Amazon site if you want to get it.
Have a great weekend and a great Thanksgiving. Enjoy your families and friends.
Stay safe and Be well.