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Flu Shots and Alzheimer's Disease

Do Flu Shots Increase or Decrease the Risk of Developing Alzheimer’s Disease?

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Updated September 29, 2013

If you ask around or search online, you’ll notice some very strong opinions on vaccinations. These range anywhere from people adamantly opposed to receiving any immunizations on one end, to research studies that tout the effectiveness of disease prevention through vaccines.

An additional question some people have is how immunizations, specifically the flu shot since it’s offered every year, affect their chances of developing Alzheimer’s.

What Are Flu Shots?

Flu shots are an immunization available on a yearly basis designed to protect the body against influenza. A common misunderstanding is that they protect against the stomach flu, but rather, they target the upper-respiratory symptoms of influenza including congestion, fever, and cough that can develop into pneumonia and other breathing difficulties.

Each year, the formula of the flu shot is adjusted to try to target the particular strains of influenza that are prevalent at that time.

Do Flu Shots Cause Alzheimer’s?

You may have heard someone say that they’re not getting a flu shot because it might cause or increase the risk for Alzheimer’s. Are they onto something, or is this a myth?

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the idea that flu shots (or the chemicals within the shots) cause or increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease is a common myth and is false.

Some flu shots contain a small amount of mercury in the thimerosal, the preservative that may be in some of the flu vaccinations. (Single dose flu shots generally don’t contain this preservative since they’re designed for a one time use when opened.) According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three governmental agencies and three independent agencies have conducted rigorous research that have demonstrated that the amount of mercury in thimerosal is safe and does not pose any harm, other than minor redness or swelling where you receive the shot.

What Does Research Say?

A research study conducted in 2001 with 4392 participants showed that the risk of developing Alzheimer’s was decreased for those who had received influenza immunizations (flu shots), as well as with for those who received the vaccinations for diphtheria or tetanus (grouped together in their research) or poliomyelitis (polio).

This research did not prove that the influenza vaccination was what caused a lower risk of Alzheimer’s, but it did demonstrate that people who received the flu shot were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s, and that those who did not receive the vaccination were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

If My Loved One Has Dementia, Should I Consent to a Flu Shot for Her?

Research suggests that the immune response of older adults with dementia is weaker than in cognitively normal adults, so a flu shot may give a needed boost to her immunity. Additional research reports that 1.5 times as many people with dementia die from influenza compared to the national average.

Of course, before you make a healthcare decision, you should discuss the risks and benefits with your physician.

DISCLAIMER

**Please note that the information included on this website and linked to both on and from this site is not medical advice and is for guidance and information only. I have made every effort to report information that is medically accurate and scientifically researched, but this is not a substitute for care and guidance from a physician.**

Sources:

Alzheimer’s Association. Alzheimer’s Myths. Accessed September 25, 2012. http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_myths_about_alzheimers.asp

Canadian Medical Association Journal. Past exposure to vaccines and subsequent risk of Alzheimer's disease. Accessed September 25, 2012. http://www.cmaj.ca/content/165/11/1495.full?sid=0710f5e4-3e75-466c-853e-d559a3c9d93b

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seasonal Influenza (Flu). Accessed September 25, 2012. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/keyfacts.htm

Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Pneumonia and Influenza Hospitalizations in Elderly People with Dementia. Accessed September 25, 2012. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1532-5415.2009.02272.x/abstract

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