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Lifestyle changes can decrease risk of all disease, including COVID-19

Dr. Larry Chambers Society has always had one disease that causes dread. Polio is still an infectious disease that is untreatable, and which slowly weakens and destroys the person before death claims its victim.
Dr. Larry Chambers

Society has always had one disease that causes dread.

Polio is still an infectious disease that is untreatable, and which slowly weakens and destroys the person before death claims its victim. Fortunately, in the 1950s, polio became preventable with the discovery of the polio vaccine, and became just another disease. Better not to have it than to have it, of course, but it was something the medical profession could deal with.

COVID-19 is the new disease that people dread, a new infectious disease that has caused life to change in a matter of weeks, with uncertainty as to when we will return to our comfortable pre-COVID-19 routines. 

The fear of COVID-19 is complicated by the fear of aging, early reports indicated older individuals are at higher risk for severe cases of COVID-19. However, new scientific evidence points toward a more positive and nuanced interpretation of the results. Consistent findings from China, Italy, and the U.S. suggest patients with underlying health conditions and risk factors, including but not limited to diabetes, high blood pressure, long-term lung disease, heart disease, stroke, long-term kidney disease, and smoking, are at higher risk for severe disease or death from COVID-19.

The implications of this are significant.  As these are conditions which predominantly affect people as they grow older, we need to ensure we respond to each of these conditions properly, because if we prevent  high blood pressure for example, the risks of developing COVID-19 decrease, and the same can be true for conditions like irregular pulse (atrial fibrillation) and many others.

Not only should we prevent and treat these conditions properly, responding to these conditions will decrease the risk of developing other conditions, such as COVID-19, irregular heartbeats and many others. Note too that not all drugs are good for you and some can cause problems, not only making COVID-19 worse, but making the quality of life for people taking them much worse.

Residents of Niagara-
on-the-Lake with underlying health conditions who have symptoms of COVID-19, including fever, cough, or shortness of breath, should immediately contact their health care provider. Whether or not they have symptoms, these people should use proper hygiene practices to protect themselves from COVID-19, such as thorough hand washing and cleaning, and disinfecting high-touch surfaces. It is particularly important that those with underlying health conditions practice physical distancing, meaning that they should stay at home, avoid crowds, gatherings, travel, and contact with people who are ill. Residents also should maintain at least a 30-day supply of medication, and a two-week supply of food and other necessities, and be aware of COVID-19 symptoms. 

Those without underlying medical conditions also should do their best to protect themselves and others from COVID-19. Everyone who is ill should stay home, except to get medical care, should not go to work, and should practise physical distancing. This is especially important for those who work with residents with underlying conditions or who otherwise are at high risk for severe outcomes from COVID-19. 

COVID-19 is a serious problem. However, we now know that much can be done to reduce the risk of contracting the virus, and to improve outcomes if it does develop. Consequently, we must focus on the positive, on actions we can take to reduce risks. The good news is that taking these steps will not only reduce your risk of developing COVID-19, it will also improve your general health, reduce your risk of physical frailty and increase your brain health.

Imagine there are 1,000 people and that 100 of them will develop COVID-19 before they die (these numbers are not accurate - they have been chosen to illustrate a point).  Now imagine that after reading our article and implementing our advice, only 70 developed COVID-19 instead of 100. If our only objective was the prevention of COVID-19, we would be delighted, because that would be a 30 per cent reduction in the number of people developing COVID-19.  Although the other 900 people do not see an advantage in terms of COVID-19 infection, they will see the following benefits:

• develop fewer diseases

• keep their brains healthier and their minds sharper

• be more independent and active

• be less likely to have to go into a care home and

• feel physically and mentally better

We are not saying that all health conditions are preventable, and certainly conditions can develop even with perfect health habits. These are simply ways to reduce the likelihood of disease. Many 21st century health problems are the result of a combination of inactivity and diet. For example, type II diabetes and high cholesterol levels are due to both reduced activity levels and increased calorie intake in most people. Another example is high blood pressure, which can occur in anyone, but most commonly occurs in those who are overweight and sedentary. Therefore, it is very likely that keeping your weight down will help prevent high blood pressure, or reduce it if it has already been diagnosed. 

Many of the underlying health conditions increasing risk of COVID-19 (diabetes, high blood pressure, long-term lung disease, heart disease, stroke, long-term kidney disease) are closely related to inactivity and diet. Although this can be disheartening, because the modern environment greatly contributes to many health risks, it also means that a few simple lifestyle changes can decrease the risk for all of them. The evidence about the benefits of staying healthy is very strong, and universally accepted.

Three general areas needed to keep healthy are:

1) Physical Health – get more active, reduce the impact of stress, have good sleep habits, and be wary of overmedication.

2) Blood Supply – do not smoke, keep your blood pressure low, your weight down, and decrease the sugar and cholesterol in your diet.

3) Brain Capability – get active and involved in the community (through virtual methods at the moment), increase intellectual activity and check your hearing and vision.

COVID-19 helps to shed light on some important aspects of health and ageing. Ageing alone is not a cause of major problems until the later ’90s — look at Christopher Plummer, who received Academy Award nominations at ages 88 and 90. 

Nevertheless, residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake should support each other through collective physical distancing and proper hygiene practices, to protect those who are the most vulnerable to severe cases of COVID-19. Additionally, it is important to take time to check on friends and family, as the recent social changes also can have emotional  impact on our loved ones. Finally, the outbreak is a reminder for us to continue practices that increase our physical and brain fitness, which are protective against a wide range of illnesses. 

Larry W. Chambers has authored articles and books on disease prevention, improvements in long-term care homes, and innovative approaches for continuing professional development. He is research director of the Niagara Regional Campus, School of Medicine, McMaster University. Eva Liu and Hanna Levy are medical students at the Niagara Regional Campus of the McMaster University School of Medicine.