The herpes virus is extremely common and affects between 80% and 90% of the population. Its most typical symptom are blisters which appear around the mouth or the genitals, depending on the strain of the virus and the way it has been transmitted. Even though it can be very unpleasant, herpes is considered an otherwise harmless infection – but is it really as harmless as assumed?
According to a recent study, the herpes virus may not only be associated with the typical blisters but may also increase your risk of Alzheimer’s, an illness which causes impaired cognitive function and dementia.
How does the herpes virus affect your health?
Once you have been infected with any variant of the herpes virus, it stays in your body for life. This does not mean that you will necessarily suffer from the symptoms – the majority of people who carry it never experience a single cold sore. This is due to the fact that although the virus remains in your body it stays inactive. From time to time it may become active and cause noticeable lesions.
How could herpes trigger dementia?
Researchers from the University of New Mexico (UNM), Brown University and the House Ear Institute (HEI), recently published a report on the virus’s potential link with dementia. They hypothesize that in some cases, the herpes virus could weaken the immune system over time and spread to the brain. Should this be the case, the virus could trigger the process which damages the brain and leads to the memory loss typical for Alzheimer’s disease. During an extensive study, the researchers found that people who had a particular type of herpes antibody in their blood were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s later on.
What does this mean?
This does not mean that everyone who carries the virus will suffer from dementia later in life. What it does mean, is that the herpes virus may be one factor, among many others, that increases your risk of developing the illness. It also means that in the future, it may be possible to slow the progression of the disease using antiviral herpes medication, which is already used to treat genital herpes infections. Scientists are hoping to begin clinical trials to establish the usefulness of antivirals for dementia treatment in the coming years.
Meanwhile, it is important to remember that there are other factors which contribute to dementia. While the exact impact of an infection with herpes on your risk of Alzheimer’s is still unclear, the link between obesity and a sedentary lifestyle to Alzheimer’s are well established. You may not be able to control whether you contract herpes but leading a healthy lifestyle and exercising regularly dramatically reduces your risk of developing Alzheimer’s by as much as 45%.