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Shingles Linked to Stroke and Heart Attacks

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The statistics aren’t reassuring; one in three adults over the age of 50 will develop the painful condition known as shingles. And if you’ve ever had chickenpox, then you already have the virus. So why is it that so many people are ignoring this fact and opting out of the vaccine?

Research released in December 2015 found that a severe case of shingles can raise the risk of stroke and heart attack–and kill. Caroline Minassian, Ph.D., and colleagues from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in London, England looked at the records of more than 67,000 US Medicare patients who had shingles and suffered either a stroke or a heart attack within a year.

“We observed a 2.4-fold increase in the ischemic stroke rate and a 1.7-fold increase heart attack rate,” researchers reported in the Public Library of Science Journal. “The most marked increase was observed during the first week following zoster [shingles] diagnosis.”

There are two possible causes for this according to researchers. The first is the virus causes fatty build-ups in the arteries to break off and cause a stroke or a heart attack. The second is that the stress caused by the pain sends blood pressure up, again resulting in a stroke or a heart attack.

“As you get older, your immune system stops paying attention to the virus for a period of time so that it grows down the nerve root, unimpeded,” Dr. Allison McGeer, a microbiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, Canada explains. “The resulting skin rashes have distinctive shapes because they follow the pattern of the nerves as they give feeling to our skin.”

Timo Vesikari, a professor of virology at the University of Tampere in Finland, and director of the institution’s vaccine research center says most people will have only one shingles outbreak in their lifetime because it serves as a reminder for the immune system to become vigilant again. Still, depending on how old you are when the first outbreak occurs, it is possible to have a second one and maybe even a third.

The medical profession at large is hoping that more people will take advantage of the new shingles vaccine that is making its rounds around the world. As it stands, the reason for people opting out of receiving them is heavily debated, with many people blaming the popularity of the “anti-vaccine” movement. Regardless of the reason, if you or someone you know is at risk of getting shingles, please speak to your healthcare professional to discuss options.

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