One of the many tragic turns the politicization of COVID-19 and our country’s response to it has been the deleterious effect it has had on public health consensus. With the rise in privatization, greed, and a withering government response over the decades, the public’s trust in medicine and science as entities above politics and money has dwindled. The novel coronavirus pandemic, as it did with everything else, expedited the trend of deteriorating public trust.
One of the places that has seeped into is the annual, and for some demographics semiannual, flu shot. Polling has shown that this past fall, 4 in 10 Americans said they weren’t planning on getting the flu shot, regardless of their feelings about—or whether or not they had received—the COVID-19 jab. Unfortunately, what many Americans continue to take with them is the age-old wisdom that getting the flu and building up a natural immunity to whatever specific strain you may catch, is preferable to either immunizing yourself from catching it at all, or simply blunting the severity of suffering infection.
The fact is that the flu shot helps save tens of thousands of people’s lives every year, while also preventing millions of hospital visits, and millions more from ever getting seriously ill. It is a win-win, considering that the cost is mostly an uncomfortably sore arm for a few hours. Now researchers out of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston have added another reason to look forward to getting your flu shot.
Combing through a large nationwide sample of U.S. seniors (65 and older), including 935,887 flu-vaccinated patients and 935,887 non-vaccinated patients, researchers found that a single flu shot provided a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease “for several years.” That is not all. Avram S. Bukhbinder, MD, a recent alumnus of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston explained in a statement that 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.”
During four-year follow-up appointments, about 5.1% of flu-vaccinated patients were found to have developed Alzheimer’s disease. Meanwhile, 8.5% of non-vaccinated patients had developed Alzheimer’s disease during follow-up.
The fact of the matter is that it is unlikely the flu shot itself is the determining factor. What is known is that there is link between various vaccinations and the flu shot with reduced Alzheimer’s outcomes. Researcher Paul Schulz explained in a statement:
“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. 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.”
Researchers say that testing whether or not immunizations like the flu shot may also help slow or lessen the progression of Alzheimer’s disease is one of the next steps that need to be undertaken. For many Americans, getting immunizations from contagions is an important community responsibility in helping protect those around you. As someone who believes in stopping the communal spread, I can also tell you, having caught the flu about 8 years ago, it is preferable not to get the flu at all.