While COVID-19 infection has afflicted a large proportion of the world population since the start of the pandemic, millions of people have also had to live with the lingering effects of having had COVID-19 - a condition more commonly known as long COVID.
Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated at least 17 million people in Europe experienced long COVID in the first two years of the pandemic, while millions more may have to live with it for years to come.
Researchers have now found there could be a way to dramatically reduce the risk of developing long COVID following COVID-19 infection - by maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
A study following women who reported a COVID-19 infection found that following a healthy lifestyle could cut the risk of developing long COVID in half.
The study involved 1,981 women who reported a positive COVID test from April 2020 to November 2021.
Those who followed five or six healthy lifestyle factors had half the risk of developing long COVID, compared to those who did not follow any of the healthy lifestyle factors.
These factors included healthy body weight, not smoking, regular exercise, adequate sleep, high quality diet, and moderate alcohol consumption.
The results also showed that, even among women who developed long COVID, those with a healthier pre-infection lifestyle had 30 per cent lower risk of having symptoms that interfered with their daily life.
“With ongoing waves of COVID-19, long COVID has created a serious public health burden. Our findings raise the possibility that adopting more healthy behaviours may reduce the risk of developing long COVID,” said Andrea Roberts, a senior research scientist in the Department of Environmental Health and senior author of the study.
‘Simple lifestyle changes’ could be beneficial
Long COVID is defined as having COVID-19 symptoms for four weeks or more after initial infection; symptoms can include fatigue, fever, and a variety of respiratory, heart, neurological, and digestive symptoms.
The authors noted that one possible explanation for the associations they observed is that, based on prior research, an unhealthy lifestyle is associated with increased risk of chronic inflammation and immune dysregulation, which have been linked with increased risk of long COVID.
In the past decades, scientists have accumulated evidence that a healthy lifestyle is good for overall health. However, in the US for example, 70 per cent of the population do not have a healthy body weight and 30 per cent do not sleep enough,” said lead author Siwen Wang, research fellow in the Department of Nutrition.
“Findings from this study suggest that simple lifestyle changes, such as having adequate sleep, may be beneficial for the prevention of long COVID.”
The study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.