Regular influenza and pneumonia vaccines can prevent illness while inhibiting the onset of heart disease.


Submitted by Lisa Vernon, RN, Public Health

Maintaining a healthy heart is important as you age. The health of your heart controls your physical activity, your social life and your emotions. Most of us have heard of the need for weight control, routine exercise and a healthy diet to care for our heart, but have you realized that you could also receive vaccines to help keep your heart healthy?

Although vaccines protect against specific illnesses such as influenza or pneumonia, they also protect against the start of heart disease that can be associated with these illnesses. Proof exists that there is a specific link between having an illness, such as influenza, and the immediate development of a heart attack, occurring at times before recovery from the original illness. That is seen through an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and a change in overall heart function.

Just prior to 2009 and the outbreak of the H1N1 (“swine flu”) influenza virus, British researchers discovered the link between influenza and a heart attack. They discovered that since the flu virus causes inflammation in the body, mostly in the lungs, it could also cause inflammation in the heart and coronary arteries. This inflammation then leads to the formation of blood clots, which can break off and transfer to the heart, causing a heart attack.

The increased risk for a heart attack can start within days of the flu onset and stay present for up to a year, which has led to both influenza-related and heart-related deaths peaking during the winter season when influenza becomes a major risk. At the time of the original research, one-half of the deaths related to influenza were actually caused by heart attacks occurring within days of the influenza onset. During that year, only one-third of persons diagnosed with heart disease had received the flu vaccine.

With this discovery nine years ago, it would be assumed that the number of people with heart disease who chose to receive the flu vaccine would have increased tremendously by the year 2016. On the other hand, research performed by C.R. MacIntyre proved that there was not an increase at all. The number of persons with heart disease who chose to receive a flu vaccine remained at only 30 percent. We should all see the flu vaccine as a safe, effective way to avoid the flu, but more importantly, to help prevent a heart attack.

Influenza vaccines, though, are not the only vaccines that can protect your heart. Persons who have chronic heart conditions, especially Native Americans, have an increased risk for pneumonia. Pneumonia bacteria usually affect a person’s lungs, lowering their ability to provide oxygen in their blood. The lower blood oxygen level causes the heart to work harder to pump blood through the lungs and bring the oxygen level back to normal. To gain protection against a pneumonia bacterial infection, persons age 65 and older are encouraged to receive the pneumococcal vaccine as well as the newer pneumonia vaccine, Prevnar 13, given one year apart.

According to the CDC, though, as of 2015, only 60 percent of Native Americans in this age range had received these vaccines. Again, this vaccine is a step toward preventing pneumonia, but more important, it is helpful in preventing a heart attack.

The shingles vaccine is also encouraged for maintaining heart health in patients over the age of 60. It is possible for the shingles virus to strike the heart muscle, causing inflammation and increasing the risk for a heart attack, although this does not happen with each case of shingles. A new, two-dose shingles vaccine was recently approved by the FDA, claiming increased effectiveness in fighting shingles, more than the current vaccine has been able to provide. Receipt of this vaccine may protect you from a very serious form of shingles that could lead to a heart attack.

A healthy heart is worth maintaining, and we hope to make this easier by encouraging everyone to receive the immunizations that they need. Our Public Health departments are willing to see walk-in patients who need their immunizations updated, and during flu season, we also give influenza vaccines to anyone, even if they are not a clinic patient.

Let’s improve immunizations alongside diet control and an increased activity level so we can reduce the number of heart attacks we see next year.