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Shingles: The New Heart and Brain Threat

Shingles: The New Heart and Brain Threat

A shingles outbreak is usually very, very painful and, as a recent British study reveals, it could also be downright deadly. It doubles the risk for a stroke, with the odds remaining 50 percent higher than normal for three months, and nearly doubles the risk for a heart attack the week after those itchy blisters appear. How could skin blisters have such far-reaching effects?

It turns out that a shingles attack dials up levels of body-wide inflammation. Inside arteries, this can trigger the development of blood clots that limit or cut off the flow of blood to the heart or brain. The pain and stress of shingles can push blood pressure higher. And shingles may even damage blood vessels in the brain in ways that lead to a bulge or a rip.

If you’ve ever had chicken pox, shingles could be in your future. The culprit, the varicella-zoster virus, hides out in your spine only to emerge decades later as a tell-tale rash. It usually shows up on the sides of the abdomen, shoulders or side of the head. Up to one in three adults—half are over age 60—will have an outbreak. Until recently, the biggest worry has been the excruciating nerve pain that develops afterward for about 40 percent of those who get shingles. This extreme pain can linger for weeks, months or even years.

Here are four steps that can boost your protection:

Know when to get the shingles vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults age 50 and over get two doses of Shingrix, the recommended vaccine, separated by 2 to 6 months. This vaccine is more than 90 percent effective at preventing shingles and post-herpetic neuralgia. Protection stays above 85 percent for at least the first four years after you get vaccinated. 

Never had chickenpox? Get that vaccine. If you’ve never had this classic childhood disease, and never been vaccinated against it, tell your doc. At any age, the chicken pox vaccine protects against infection with the varicella-zoster virus.

Eat for tip-top immunity. Shingles is more likely to flare up when your immune system’s not at its strongest. In one study from the UK’s London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (the same folks who found the link with stroke and heart attacks), people who munched five servings of vegetables a day were 70 percent less likely to have an outbreak than those who ate just one or two. And three servings of fruit a day cut risk 50 percent. 

In the study, no single nutrient seemed to ward off a shingles outbreak. The researchers think it’s the wide range of vitamins, minerals and immune-nourishing phytonutrients that ward off an attack, especially in people over age 60. A healthy diet is important for plenty of reasons, of course. And it can’t replace the protection you’ll get from the shingles vaccine.

Learn to relax deeply. Tai chi is a gentle exercise that involves a series of flowing movements that strengthen the body while relaxing the mind and nervous system. In one University of California Los Angeles study of 112 adults, ages 59 to 82, this exercise form boosted immunity against shingles dramatically. It’s not a replacement for the vaccine, but could be a great add-on. Older adults who’d received the singles vaccine and did Tai Chi three times a week for four months had 40 percent higher levels of shingles antibodies compared to those who only got the vaccine!

Medically reviewed in August 2019.

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