You probably know a few ways to prevent problems like strokes and heart attacks. These include things like eating a heart-friendly diet, walking or being physically active regularly, and not smoking.
Now there’s a surprising new way to avoid heart attacks and strokes—the shingles vaccine. Shingles results from the same virus (herpes zoster) that gave you chicken pox as a kid. The virus stays in the body for years and can later be reactivated. This causes shingles—a very painful rash on the side of the face or body. In some cases, it can require you to take time off from work and just make your life miserable. One in three people over age 40 will have shingles at some time during their life.
But the rash isn’t the only thing to worry about. A 2017 study showed that shingles increases the risk for stroke and heart attack. People who get shingles have a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 59% higher risk of heart attack than those who don’t get shingles.
How does shingles increase the risk for heart problems? Heart attacks and strokes are thought to happen because of inflammation. It causes the lining of blood vessels to tear and blood clots to form. Those blood clots can block blood flow to the heart muscle or the brain.
Anything that increases inflammation in your body increases your risk for heart problems. That includes infections of the herpes zoster virus, which is responsible for chicken pox and shingles.
Here’s the good news: the shingles shot can help lower your risk of stroke. The newest research found that getting one type of the vaccine, zoster vaccine live, decreased the risk for stroke by about 16% in people who hadn’t had a stroke. When looking just at people under age 80, the vaccine lowered stroke risk by 20%. (Unfortunately if you have already had shingles, the vaccine won’t help you prevent a stroke.)
The research looked at the effects of the first shingles vaccine, called Zostavax®. Since that study was completed, a new vaccine, called Shingrix®, has become available. It’s more effective in preventing an infection, so it might decrease the risk of stroke even more. Additional research is needed.
Since the shingles vaccines can help your heart, the American Heart Association recommends adults over age 50 get it. Shingrix®, which was approved by the FDA in 2017, has been shown to be more than 90 percent effective at preventing shingles. Since this shot may also help your heart, getting it is a no-brainer!
There’s a lot you can do to decrease inflammation and prevent strokes besides the shingles vaccine. Here are some:
- Get and keep a healthy weight
- Exercise regularly
- Don’t smoke
- Lower high blood pressure
- Lower high cholesterol
- Drink in moderation
- Treat atrial fibrillation
- Treat diabetes
By taking control of your health and getting recommended vaccines (the flu shot can lower your risk for a heart attack!), you can help your heart—and prevent shingles, too!
Want to find out more about your risk for having a heart attack or stroke? Certain tests can help. Ask your doctor about the Lp-PLA2 test. This simple blood test measures a substance inside your artery wall that can warn of an active disease process and a more near-term risk of heart attack or stroke than cholesterol alone.