Following a healthy lifestyle before developing COVID-19 may reduce your risk for long-term symptoms, or long COVID, according to a new study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
COVID-19 has had an outsize toll on people with diabetes, who are at higher risk for hospitalization if they develop the viral infection — especially if they have less-than-optimal blood glucose control. Even months later, hospitalization for COVID-19 can lead to greater health care needs. Regardless of whether you’re hospitalized with COVID-19, having type 2 diabetes may increase the risk for long COVID — and having COVID-19 may also raise the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Being vaccinated against COVID-19, on the other hand, is linked to a lower risk for diabetes or cardiovascular problems if you do develop the infection. Both ongoing cardiovascular problems and peripheral neuropathy are known to be potential problems that follow COVID-19.
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For the latest study, researchers were interested in looking at lifestyle factors that might reduce the risk of developing long COVID following an initial COVID-19 diagnosis. The participants were 1,981 women with an average age of 64.7 who tested positive for the virus that causes the infection between April 2020 and November 2021. These participants had already been participating in a general health study, so they had already answered questions about their lifestyle habits before they tested positive for the virus. The researchers looked at six different healthy lifestyle factors that participants either did or didn’t have — a healthy body-mass index (BMI, a measure of body weight that takes height into account), never smoking, getting at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each week, having a moderate alcohol intake, having a healthy diet, and getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
Healthier lifestyle linked to lower risk of long COVID
Out of all participants, 871 (44%) met the criteria for long COVID following their initial positive test — ongoing symptoms like fatigue, smell or taste problems, shortness of breath, brain fog, or memory problems. The researchers found that having more healthy lifestyle factors was linked to a lower risk of developing long COVID — compared with participants who didn’t have any healthy lifestyle factors, those with five or six factors were 49% less likely to develop it. After adjusting for demographic factors (like age or sex) that were linked to long COVID, the researchers found that a healthy BMI, not smoking, a healthy diet, and physical activity were each still linked to a lower risk for long COVID. When other lifestyle factors were adjusted for, adequate sleep and a healthy BMI were the healthy lifestyle factors most strongly linked to a lower risk for long COVID. These results are similar when the researchers used a stricter definition for long COVID, meaning that symptoms had to last for at least two months or be ongoing at the time of assessment.
The researchers noted that several biological mechanisms could explain the link between a healthy lifestyle and long COVID, including a lower risk for chronic inflammation based on lifestyle factors. Future research, they wrote, should examine whether lifestyle interventions could reduce the risk of developing long COVID or lead to less severe long COVID symptoms.
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