Can you prevent long COVID? It may depend on your lifestyle, study suggests

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Preventing long COVID and its array of potential symptoms that can afflict the body could depend on a person’s lifestyle, a new Harvard-led study suggests.

Sticking to simple, healthy habits such as getting good sleep is not only beneficial to one’s overall health, but may also significantly lower the chances of developing long COVID, according to research published Feb. 6 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

In the study of 1,981 women who tested positive for COVID-19, there was a 49% lower risk associated with developing long COVID for those who adhered to five to six healthy lifestyle factors compared with women who didn’t, according to the study from researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The lifestyle factors include maintaining both a healthy body weight and diet, getting good sleep, regular exercise, avoiding smoking and moderate alcohol consumption.

Out of 44% of the women who developed long COVID, the most common symptoms were fatigue, symptoms affecting smell or taste, shortness of breath and brain fog, according to the research.

The findings suggest “simple lifestyle changes” could help prevent lingering symptoms, lead study author Siwen Wang, a research fellow of the school of public health’s nutrition department, said in a news release.

How the study was conducted and more findings

The research involved female nurses in the U.S. who were a part of a larger, ongoing study of 116,429 nurses and their health which began in 1989. In April 2020, these participants were invited to join a COVID-19 sub-study.

Among thousands of nurses who previously reported their lifestyle habits in 2015 and 2017, the long COVID study was narrowed to focus on 1,981 nurses who reported a COVID-19 positive test result sometime between April 2020 through November 2021, according to the research.

Out of the 1,981 nurses, 871 developed long COVID, while 1,110 didn’t, the study found. Nurses reporting at least four weeks of ongoing symptoms were defined as having long COVID, which is in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance.

The lower risk of developing long COVID was most associated with two of the six lifestyle factors: having healthy body weight and getting good sleep, the study found.

The study defined a healthy BMI index as between 18.5 and 24.7, with regular exercise considered at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week, and good sleep defined as getting seven to nine hours of rest.

For the nurses who did develop long COVID but also had a healthier lifestyle before infection, they had about a 30% lower chance of developing more severe long COVID symptoms — specifically symptoms directly interfering with day-to-day activities, the release said.

Ultimately researchers emphasized the connection between healthy lifestyle factors and the lower risk of long COVID is strictly an association and not causal, meaning they didn’t find a direct influence.

However, if the findings were causal, 36% of long COVID cases could have been fully prevented if all participants lived by the five or six healthy lifestyle factors, the research said.

“In the past decades, scientists have accumulated evidence that healthy lifestyle is good for overall health,” Wang said. “However, in the U.S. for example, 70 percent of the population do not have a healthy body weight and 30 percent do not sleep enough.”

A biological explanation for long COVID?

Not maintaining healthy lifestyle factors may increase the risk of developing long COVID because living unhealthily is related to chronic inflammation and immune dysregulation, which may trigger the condition, the study noted.

The research calls for more studies to investigate whether a healthy lifestyle is linked to lowering the risk of long COVID.

One limitation of the research was how the majority of nurses involved in the study were middle-aged females who were mostly white.

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