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Trending Science: Smile – it's flu jab time!

New research shows a positive state of mind can boost the effectiveness of vaccines such as the flu jab.


Winter is coming, and for those this side of the Wall, that means it’s time for our annual flu vaccine. A good idea for most of us, the elderly especially are advised to get their jabs. But while they are more likely to be vulnerable to the impact of flu, the vaccination is estimated to only be effective in 17-53 % of older adults compared to 70-90 % of younger people. So the search is on to find a way to maximise its benefits. A study just published reveals that being in a good mood for your flu jab boosts its effectiveness. Researchers at Nottingham University, UK, measured negative mood, positive mood, physical activity, diet and sleep three times a week over a 6 week period in a group of 138 older people due to have their flu jab. They followed this up by measuring the amount of influenza antibody in the blood at 4 weeks and 16 weeks after the vaccination. Speaking to the BBC’s Today Programme, Kavita Vedhara, a professor from the school of medicine at the University of Nottingham and principal researcher on this study said, ‘Much to our surprise the only factor that appeared to influence how much antibody you produce was your levels of positive mood.’ When the team looked at the effect of being in a positive mood on the day of the injection itself, the results were even more clear – being in a positive state of mind accounted for between 8 and 14 % of the variability in antibody levels. When asked to explain the possible mechanism behind the results, the professor replied that one route is a biological one. ‘Our mood has physiological consequences; for example you get changes in hormones such as cortisol. These hormones communicate directly with the immune system.’ Researchers are quick to point out this is an observational study, ‘(…) so really the acid test of whether or not this is a causal relationship requires us to run a trial in which we would change people’s positive mood ideally just on the day of vaccination,’ said Professor Vedhara. She added that while it is well known that psychological states have a profound impact on health, they are probably not being considered as they might be. They are currently recruiting patients for their next study: a trial which sets out to establish whether improving positive mood in older people just on the day of vaccination has the same impact. So what can older people do right now? ‘Well,’ says the Professor, ‘You can do one of two things: You can try and avoid the things that put you in a less positive frame of mind. The alternative is to do the things that make you happy, like cuddling your grandchildren.’


United Kingdom