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Oct 24th, 2013

If you are part of the more than half of Americans who don’t get a flu shot, you might want to rethink your strategy. A new study that analyzed heart health found that flu shots cut the risk of heart attack and stroke in older adults.

Risk of Cardiac Event

In people who had already had a heart attack, flu shots were shown to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by 50%. The reason for this effect has been attributed to a few different theories.

One theory is that having the flu may increase your risk of cardiac event, because flu symptoms can lead to plaque build up in the arteries. “Vulnerable plaque theory” suggests that the flu turns stable plaque into unstable plaque, which causes clogged arteries and in turn, a heart attack.

Another possibility is that the physical strain placed on your entire body from symptoms of the flu, including a weakened immune system and severe coughing among other issues, leads the heart to work overtime and cause a heart attack or other cardiac related issues.

Heart Health Study

Jacob Udell, a cardiologist at Women's College Hospital and a scientist at the University of Toront, led a team that analyzed 6 different studies on heart health. After evaluating information about more than 6,700 men and women with an average age of 67, half of whom received a flu shot and half of whom did not, they discovered that the flu shot provides substantial protection from a cardiac event.

The flu shot reduces the risk the most in people who have just recently suffered from a heart attack. They were shown to have a 55% lower risk. One year later, the flu shot still reduced the risk of a heart attack or stroke by 36% compared to those without the shot. The findings are encouraging, and there is even a way to boost the effects, according to researchers.

When given a stronger vaccine, people who got the flu shot were 30% less likely to have a major cardiac event, compared with those who received a typical seasonal vaccine. More potent vaccines seemed to offer more protection against a cardiac event, something that might lead to a new medication in the future.

"We may have identified that the flu vaccine may also be a vaccine against heart attacks," said Udell.

Heart Disease and the Flu

Because the elderly are already more at risk for the flu due to a weakened ability to cope with symptoms, getting a flu shot may help protect your health in a number of ways. Mariell Jessup, the president of the American Heart Association noted that all major health organizations recommend that people with heart disease get the influenza vaccine. Always talk to your doctor before getting a flu shot because some people, specifically those with an egg allergy, need to be demonstrate extra caution about which specific shot they receive.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and taking the necessary steps to control your health will help you avoid a heart attack, stroke, or other cardiac related event. Heart attacks and strokes are two of the leading reasons that people need long term care, but both of those conditions are highly preventable if you maintain a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and monitor your risk factors, especially high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, and smoking.

Taking control of your health will help reduce the chance that you will need long term care and help you lead a happier retirement.

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