(CBS) -- Getting a flu shot might protect against heart disease and deadly heart attacks.
That's what a new study presented over the weekend at the 2012 Canadian Cardiovascular Congress in Toronto found. It showed people who got an influenza vaccine were 50 percent less likely to experience a major cardiac event such as a heart attack, stroke or cardiac death, compared with those who had a placebo vaccine.
"The use of the vaccine is still much too low, less than 50 percent of the general population; it's even poorly used among health care workers," he says. "Imagine if this vaccine could also be a proven way to prevent heart disease," study author Dr. Jacob Udell, a cardiologist at Women's College Hospital and the University of Toronto, said in a press release.
The study involved 3,227 patients, half of which had established heart disease and were part of earlier studies dating back to the 1960s. Half of participants were randomly assigned to receive the flu shot.
Besides reducing cardiovascular risk, the study found those who had a flu shot also were 40 percent less likely to die from any cause compared with those who had a placebo.
Udell said the results support current recommendations for influenza vaccines for those with a prior history of heart attack or attacks, but now they could potentially be used for another reason besides reducing flu risk.
"In addition to leading a heart healthy life, having an annual flu shot could be another easy way to help prevent cardiac events," Heart and Stroke Foundation spokesperson Dr. Beth Abramson said in a statement.
Udell told WebMD that the benefits may be explained because they provide protection for vulnerable patients who might have breathing difficulties while sick with the flu. These problems put them at higher risk for stroke or heart attack. The vaccine may also prevent inflammation that causes arteries to rupture.
The findings are considered preliminary because they were presented at a conference and not in a peer-reviewed journal.
Dr Harindra Wijeysundera, a cardiology researcher at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Canada, who co-moderated the presentation, told Theheart.org that the treatment effect "is hard to believe," adding more research is needed.
"As the presenter stated, it lays the foundation as a hypothesis for more study," he said.