A Shot to Avoid a Heart Attack or Stroke? Yep…the Flu Shot!

It turns out that the flu shot protects you from a whole lot more than the flu.

Posted Nov 20, 2014

Every year it’s the same thing…everywhere you go, someone’s begging, pleading, demanding that you get the flu shot.  There are signs all over at work.  There are billboards outside of every pharmacy.  Why can’t they just leave you alone?  After all, it’s only the flu.

So you’re not too worried about getting the flu, huh?  How about a heart attack?  Stroke?

Until recently, the one good reason to get the flu shot was to avoid getting the flu.  Now there’s a second great reason:  to protect yourself from heart attack and stroke.

More in a moment on the amazing protective effects of the flu vaccine against cardiovascular events (acute blockages of the vessels delivering blood to your heart and brain).  But first, let’s start with the original reason that flu vaccines were developed.  Few people realize that the seasonal flu kills, yes kills, between 3,000 and 49,000 Americans each and every year.  That’s why the medical profession has been decrying all the media hype surrounding Ebola, given that as of this writing, only ten people have been hospitalized in the United States with that viral infection (most of whom were infected in West Africa), only two of whom have died (both after becoming infected in West Africa).  The seasonal flu really does reach epidemic levels, annually infecting between 5% and 20% of all Americans.  And for 200,000 of us each year, simply suffering through at home is not an option, as only hospitalization can ward off death due to serious flu-related complications (such as pneumonia).  While most of us don’t require hospitalization or experience life-threatening complications, getting the flu at best means a couple weeks of sheer misery.  Not only do we later have to make up for the missed days of work or school (38 million school day absences annually), the congestion, sore throat, fever, muscle aches, and headache are truly miserable.  And either before or after we get sick, we often are caring for our sick loved ones (as the flu is highly contagious).  All this tends to make flu season a long one in many households, offices, and schools.

Yep, the seasonal flu is miserable.  And avoidable.

Whether you receive the small shot in the arm or the spray up the nose, annual flu vaccination offers while not 100%, significant protection against the seasonal flu.  In fact, vaccination is now recommended for virtually everyone over six months of age.  Furthermore, huge numbers of us suffer from medical conditions or demographics that place us at greater risk from the flu-related complications – and thus at greater need for yearly vaccination.  Current cancer patients and cancer survivors are at greater risk of flu-related complications, as are diabetics (29 million of us), asthmatics, those suffering from COPD, and the millions with heart disease.  Those at the two ends of the age spectrum, young children and seniors, are also more vulnerable to flu-related complications.  Taken together, this is a sizable portion of our population and likely includes you and/or some people you love.  For these folks, getting the flu is much more dangerous, even life-threatening.

So given the tremendous availability and over-the-top marketing of flu shots, the recommendation that virtually all of us should be vaccinated, and the risk and misery associated with a flu infection, we all line up every year to be vaccinated, right?  Wrong.  More than 50% of all Americans under age 65 and roughly a third of those older fail to get vaccinated.  In other words, odds are, you and/or your loved ones are probably not planning on getting vaccinated this flu season (that is, now).

So avoiding miserable weeks of coughing, sneezing, and aches and pains and, for some of you, hospitalization and serious complications is not enough for most of us to pull into one of the numerous flu shot locations and be vaccinated.  Fine.  Then how about this:  a seasonal flu shot protects you from heart attack, heart failure, stroke, and other life-threatening cardiovascular crises.  Yep, the flu shot may just well save your life from the number one killer worldwide, a cardiovascular catastrophe.

The impressive power of a flu shot to reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and other major cardiovascular events was reported in a 2103 JAMA article.  Certainly if you don’t ever get the flu (due to vaccination or luck), you won’t suffer a flu-related cardiac event or stroke (which can result from reduced oxygenation, dehydration, pneumonia, or other flu-related complications).  But there’s more to the vaccine’s cardiovascular protective powers than simply preventing you from suffering a complication of the flu.  Getting vaccinated protects the blood vessels to your heart and brain through different pathways, and the protection lasts at least a year after your shot in the arm.

The vaccine is designed to trigger your immune system to churn out flu virus-targeting antibodies into your bloodstream which seek out and destroy the virus wherever it attempts to gain entry into your body.  But your heart and brain are protected by at least one unanticipated effect of this antibody manufacturing:  certain processes within some of your cells are also stimulated.  And in one case, the flu shot appears to stimulate increased production of a protein (called the bradykinin 2 receptor) within cells which has dramatic and protective effects on the heart and brain, specifically, protection against heart attacks, strokes, and other dangerous cardiovascular occurrences.  And this is likely just one of several immune system responses to the flu vaccine that result in protective changes against heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases.

And how big is this cardiovascular protective effect?  Big.  Researchers saw as great as a 50% reduction in the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other major cardiovascular events in the year following flu vaccination.  And this big-time protection lasts at least a year after vaccination.

So now in addition to avoiding a couple of truly miserable weeks at home, missing work or school, and for the risk of flu-related complications and hospitalization, you can add this to the plus-column supporting flu shots:  you greatly reduce your risk of dangerous and disabling non-flu cardiovascular crises such as heart attack and stroke, at least until it’s time for next year’s vaccination.

Now are you ready to roll up your sleeve?