Surprising connection between flu and heart disease

If you have heart disease or risk factors for heart disease, you already know about the increased risk of heart attack and stroke. But did you know that coming down with the flu can substantially increase the risk of a serious or even fatal cardiac event? Or that getting the influenza vaccine can substantially reduce that risk, even if you do wind up contracting the seasonal virus?

Probably not, if annual influenza vaccination rates are any indication, especially if you’re under the age of 65. According to a Houston Methodist review published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, Americans with heart disease continue to have low vaccination rates every year despite higher rates of death and complications from influenza.

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The flu vaccination rate for American adults who are less than 65 years of age and have heart disease is less than 50%, compared to 80% in older adults with heart disease.

“It seems that younger Americans with high-risk conditions have not gotten the same memo that their older counterparts have received about the importance of getting the influenza vaccine,” says Dr. Priyanka Bhugra, internal medicine specialist at Houston Methodist and lead author of the JAHA article. “That’s dangerous, considering people with heart conditions are particularly vulnerable to influenza-related heart complications, whether they’ve reached retirement age or not.”

It’s well-known that the flu can lead to significant respiratory symptoms such as pneumonia, bronchitis and bacterial infection of the lungs. The virus’ effects on the heart have historically been harder to parse out, in part because many patients already have a known predisposition to cardiac events and in part because the cardiac event often occurs weeks after the onset of the flu.

But here’s what recent research has shown:

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