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Can the Flu Vaccine Reduce Alzheimer’s Risk?

Older bearded man receiving flu vaccine from nurse
Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

While much of the world’s attention is focused on a vaccine for COVID-19, researchers out of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) have found that people who get an annual vaccine for the regular flu have a dramatically reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. 

To come to this conclusion, the researchers examined a database known as Cerner Health Facts. This database reaches back to the year 2000 and contains medical data on patients from over 600 hospitals. The data is not linked to identifiable patients, but it is still a valuable treasure trove of information to researchers. It contains, for example, information on over 158,300,000 patients and over 1.3 billion laboratory results.

Big Data

“Our role was to sort through enormous amounts of de-identified patient data in the Cerner Health Facts database to see whether there are drugs that could be repurposed to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” said UTHealth associate professor Xiaoqian Jiang. “Once we identified the flu vaccine as a candidate, we used machine learning to analyze more than 310,000 health records to study the relationship between flu vaccination and Alzheimer’s disease.”

The analysis led to the conclusion that people who get the flu vaccine are 17% less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease. It was also determined that more frequent vaccinations and starting vaccinations at a younger age could provide even greater risk reduction. 

The reason, say the researchers might be that the vaccine conditions the body to fight Alzheimer’s, although they admit that more investigation is needed to determine why the link exists. 

“One of our theories of how the flu vaccine may work is that some of the proteins in the flu virus may train the body’s immune response to better protect against Alzheimer’s disease,” said first author Albert Amran. “Providing people with a flu vaccine may be a safe way to introduce those proteins that could help prepare the body to fight off the disease. Additional studies in large clinical trials are needed to explore whether the flu shot could serve as a valid public health strategy in the fight against this disease.”