Herpes Virus Infections Can Cost You Your Mind

Harold Mandel's picture
Laughing to relax
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Herpes virus infections are turning out to be more than an embarrassment. Aside from reports of an association between herpes virus infections and cervical cancer, there are now also reports of an association between herpes virus infections and cognitive decline. Clearly, safe sexual practices to avoid this infection are advisable. It's also clearly worth considering the herpes vaccine.

Latent, persistent herpes virus infections may be associated with cognitive impairments, reports
Psychological Medicine. Researchers have found that herpes virus infections may cause cognitive impairment during and after acute encephalitis. Furthermore, although chronic, latent, persistent herpes virus infection is generally considered to be a relatively benign condition, some studies have observed cognitive impairment in people exposed to this viral infection which is not traceable to encephalitis.

According to a new University of Michigan study the same herpes virus which produces cold sores during periods of stress has now been linked to cognitive impairment throughout life. An impact of this infection has even been identified on children from 12 years old to 16 years old. Researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health investigated the association which exists between two latent herpes viruses, Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 and cytomegalovirus (CMV), and cognitive impairment among people across three age groups: 6-16, 20-59, and 60 and older.

The oral herpes virus is known as HSV-1. In previous research HSV-1 has been linked with neurological disorders which are associated with aging, including Alzheimer's disease and dementia. However, there have been few studies which have investigated whether these pathogens may influence cognition from very early in life. Allison Aiello, who is an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health School, has said, "This study is a first step in establishing an association between these viruses and cognition across a range of ages in the U.S. population."

The research demonstrates that HSV-1 is associated with lower reading and spatial reasoning test scores in children from 12 years old to 16 years old. Impaired coding speed was observed in middle aged adults. Coding speed is a measure of visual motor speed and attention. Immediate memory impairment was seen in older adults. There was also an impairment in coding speed, learning and recall in middle-aged adults, associated with CMV.

These findings present us with a rather big problem in view of the fact that it has been reported greater than one third of the U.S. population tests positive for these viruses by early childhood.
There are some individuals who are not symptomatic. Amanda Simanek, an assistant professor of epidemiology, has said, "If HSV-1 begins to have impact on cognitive function early in life, HSV-1 infection in childhood may have important consequences for educational attainment and social mobility across the lifespan." And there is an enormous problem in dealing with genital herpes, with this infection being the most common sexually transmitted disease, reports EmaxHealth reporter Denise Reynolds, RD.

Herpes viruses are never completely cleared from the body once a person is infected. The virus instead persists in a latent state. However, these pathogens are subject to reactivation and they are capable of invading the central nervous system, where it is possible they may cause direct damage to the brain. Simanek has pointed out that reactivation of herpes viruses triggers the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which have been found to be associated with cognitive impairment.

Pro-inflammatory cytokines have been observed to play an important role in the immunological response to infection and tissue injury. However, excessive inflammation has been linked to many chronic disease outcomes. An understanding of why herpes sores come and go helps determine manners in which to avoid outbreaks of herpes, as reported on by EmaxHealth reporter Kathleen Blanchard, RN.

As of this time a great deal of the public health focus dealing with herpes viruses has been centered around treating symptoms and some on prevention. There are implications for public health preventive measures to be considered if future research continues to support these findings and identifies a definitive mechanistic pathway. It is worth considering that antivirals which are targeted against these infections may be recommended. And continued efforts in developing vaccines to target HSV-1 and CMV should be encouraged.

Another very important consideration is that since these viruses are very ubiquitous and may reactivate in response to exposure to stressors, coping better with stress may have more significance than ever. Extra efforts should be encouraged to reduce stress, particularly in individuals who are known to be positive for HSV-1 as indicated by the presence of cold sores during times of stress. More research is warranted to examine the biological pathways by which herpes viruses may have an affect on cognitive impairment over time.

Dr. Weil offers an impressive list of suggestions to help deal with stress:

1: Determine what is causing stress in your life.

2: Keep a diary to record the events or situations that are stressful for you.

3: Strengthen your support system and communicate with family and friends. Even pets may help with this.

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4: Open up. Learn how to express your thoughts and feelings.

5: Don't be afraid to say "no" when someone asks you to do something. You have to understand and accept your own limits.

6: Learn how to express your feelings appropriately by not insulting or hurting other people.

7: Simplify your life. What this means is restructuring your priorities. You should evaluate what activities are most important, and get rid of the ones which aren't as important. This should help you feel less worn out and more rested.

8: Recognize that drugs and alcohol are never effective methods to solve problems.

9: Improve lifestyle habits. You should exercise more and eat healthy foods. This can help you improve your weight, energy levels, self-confidence, and overall state of health and well-being, which should make it much easier for you to handle daily stressors.

10: Reduce stress at work. Work with your coworkers or manager to improve working conditions to help increase productivity in healthy ways.

11: Laugh it off. Believe it or not laughter is an effective way to reduce stress. Laughing helps to dissolve tension and seems to help brighten just about any situation.

12: Try not to take things too seriously. It you have a negative mood this will only add to your level of stress.

13: Take a media break or a news fast. It has been shown that the emotional content of the news can affect mood and actually aggravate sadness and depression.

14: Try mind-body exercises such as breath work, meditation, yoga and biofeedback.

15: Check your medications including over the counter medications. Many medications can aggravate anxiety or depression.

16: Eliminate caffeine and other stimulants from your diet.

17: Increase intake of omega-3 fatty acids by eating oily fish or with supplements.

It has been my observation that the increased awareness of the potential for negative health associations with the herpes virus infection has been influencing considerations of safer sexual
practices and of the potential value of the herpes vaccine. However, the herpes virus is so ubiquitous in the human population it is imperative to understand the stress factor in people afflicted with this virus with an understanding you may be able to learn to live with this virus better by working to keep it in a dormant state. The suggestions by Dr. Weil for dealing with stress are all excellent. I would like to also suggest trying to find more time to spend outdoors in the fresh air. This always appears to help with stress. Massage of your entire body is also a great stress buster.

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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