Having herpes could double your risk of dementia, study finds

Blisters that break open and form small ulcers, swollen lymph nodes. Herpes simplex virus is an infection that causes herpes.
People with cold sores, or the herpes simplex virus, are twice as like to get dementia. (Getty Images)

People infected with the herpes simplex virus could be at a heightened risk of developing dementia, a new study has found.

It is estimated that 70% of Brits will either have herpes simplex type 1 or 2 by their 25th birthday. The virus that causes oral Herpes, HSV-1, affects approximately 70% of the population and is often referred to as a cold sore. The HSV-2 virus, which causes Genital Herpes, affects 23% of adults in the UK.

The long-term study looked at more than a thousand 70-year-olds in Sweden and found that those exposed to the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) – the most common form – have double the risk of developing dementia.

The study participants were followed for 15 years, and 82% were carriers of the HSV-1 virus. This group were twice as likely to develop dementia than those who did not have the virus.

"What's special about this particular study is that the participants are roughly the same age, which makes the results even more reliable since age differences, which are otherwise linked to the development of dementia, cannot confuse the results," Erika Vestin from Uppsala University in Sweden, who carried out the research, said in a statement.

Approximately 944,000, or one in 11 people over the age of 65, have dementia in the UK, a number which is set to rise to over 1 million by 2030.

Researchers do not fully understand the causes of dementia, but it is thought that Alzheimer’s – the most common form of dementia – can be caused by abnormal build-up of the amyloid and tau proteins.

However, Dr Joseph Ambani of Glow Bar London says that this new study "marks a significant step forward in our understanding of dementia's multifaceted etiology".

How can the herpes simplex virus lead to dementia?

Dr Ambani explains that the link between the conditions is "rooted in the virus's ability to cause chronic inflammation and direct damage to the brain's cells".

Close-up of a digital tablet with brain x-ray on screen.
The HSV-1 virus can lead to chronic inflammation which can cause dementia. (Getty Images)

"HSV-1, the type commonly associated with cold sores, can lie dormant in the body for years and may reactivate during periods of stress or immune suppression," he adds.

"Upon reactivation, it has the potential to invade the brain, leading to inflammation and accumulation of amyloid-beta and tau proteins, which are hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease. This process can contribute to neuronal damage and loss, ultimately increasing the risk of dementia."

How to lower your risk of dementia if you have HSV-1

While having HSV-1 does not mean you are guaranteed to get dementia, there are some things you can do to lessen the risk, Dr Ambani says.

He suggests maintaining a strong immune system through a balanced diet, regular physical activity, and adequate sleep is “paramount”.

"Managing stress and avoiding known triggers for HSV outbreaks can mitigate the virus's reactivation," he adds.

"For those with frequent recurrences, antiviral medications can help control the virus, potentially reducing the long-term risk of dementia. Moreover, engaging in activities that stimulate the brain, such as learning new skills, reading, and puzzle-solving, may also offer protective benefits against cognitive decline."

Other risk factors of dementia

Some key risk factors for dementia include age, genetic predisposition, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, smoking, traumatic brain injuries, and excessive alcohol consumption

Group of friends drinking and toasting glass of beer at brewery pub restaurant- Happy multiracial people enjoying happy hour with pint sitting at bar table- Youth Food and beverage lifestyle concept
Excessive alcohol consumption is a risk factor in developing dementia. (Getty Images)

"Dementia's landscape is complex, with several factors intertwining to influence its development," Dr Ambani explains.

"Importantly, lifestyle choices play a crucial role as a heart-healthy lifestyle not only supports cardiovascular well-being but also cognitive health. Engaging in regular physical activity, adhering to a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, maintaining social connections, and pursuing lifelong learning can all contribute to lowering the risk of dementia."

He adds that this new study "underscores the importance of a holistic approach to health, emphasising prevention, early detection, and management of both infectious diseases and chronic conditions".

Dr Ambani continues: "As we continue to unravel the complexities of the human body and mind, embracing a lifestyle that nurtures both will be our best defence against the myriad challenges they may face."

Dementia: Read more