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Flu vaccine may reduce risk of Alzheimer’s disease, new study shows

New research shows people who received at least one flu vaccination were less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease over the course of a lifetime. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
A new UTHealth study shows a possible link between getting a flu shot and lowering the risk of Alzheimer's disease. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

People who received at least one flu vaccination were 17% less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease over the course of a lifetime, according to researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

First author Albert Amran, a fourth-year medical student at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, presented the findings at the 2020 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference July 27-31. The conference was held virtually due to COVID-19. Senior author of the study was Paul E. Schulz, MD, Rick McCord Professor in Neurology and Umphrey Family Professor in Neurodegenerative Diseases at UTHealth.

“Because there are no treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, it is crucial that we find ways to prevent it and delay its onset,” Amran said. “About 5.8 million people in the United States have this disease, so even a small reduction in risk can make a dramatic difference. We began our study by looking for ways we could reduce this risk.”

Amran and Schulz teamed up with a group of researchers at UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics, led by Xiaoqian Jiang, PhD, associate professor, to pinpoint potential factors that could reduce risk.

“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,” Jiang said. “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.”

Cerner Health Facts® is a database of privacy law-compliant electronic health records from over 600 participating Cerner client hospitals and clinics that is hosted by the School of Biomedical Informatics.

Amran and the research team also found that more frequent flu vaccination and receiving vaccination at younger ages were associated with even greater decreases in risk.

“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,” Amran said. “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.”

Amran also notes that more research is needed to investigate why and how the flu vaccine works in the body to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

Co-authors from McGovern Medical School included medical students Avram Bukhbinder and Srivathsan Ramesh and alumnus Ryan Coburn, MD ’20. Other co-authors from the School of Biomedical Informatics included Qian Xiao, PhD, assistant professor; Elmer V. Bernstam, MD, professor of biomedical informatics with a joint appointment at McGovern Medical School as professor of internal medicine; Yejin Kim, PhD, assistant professor; and research assistant and incoming PhD candidate Yaobin Ling.

The study was funded by the Christopher Sarofim Family Professorship in Biomedical Informatics and Bioengineering; a UT STARs Award; the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas under award number RR180012; and the National Institutes of Health under award numbers R01GM114612 and U01TR002062.

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John Kriescher

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