All of us have felt the ramification of the Covid-19 virus in one way or another. Unfortunately, I think we all know someone who has succumbed to this terrible plague. Many people are suffering financially and socially from the various restrictions that we have all needed to follow. But like any situation, good or bad, there are a lot of things to learn from what we have witnessed and what the scientific and medical world have discovered. Even challenging times provide lessons to be learned. There is a lot we can do for ourselves in order to improve our health and improve our chances of survival in situations such as these.
This article is NOT going to address the continuing debate about restrictions and protocols. It is far too early for us to know which protocols are best for the overall population, in both the short and long term. Hopefully, we will have a more clear picture in a year’s time.
What I do want to address is the issue of comorbidity and Covid-19. Comorbidity is the presence of two diseases or conditions in a patient. Current data has shown us that the presence of existing health conditions, in addition to Covid- 19, has played a part in how sick one gets and the rate of mortality. Although it will be months and years before we have the whole picture, there is a lot we already know and understand.
There are some obvious circumstances that basically predict poorer outcomes for Covid-19 patients, including age, smoking, underlying additional sickness, and poor immune response. Let’s have a look at the conditions that are PREVENTABLE and would give one a better chance with Covid-19 or other infectious diseases. In addition, improving these conditions will help protect against chronic illnesses.
Smokers, as we all know, are automatically at a higher risk for disease. Whether you are talking about cancers, cardiovascular disease, or respiratory illness such as chronic bronchitis or COPD, smokers always tend to be ill more often and have a shorter lifespan. With Covid-19, smokers have suffered greatly with horrible results. To date, there have been 5 studies done in China, and although only one had a larger sample, all showed approximately a 2.5 times rate of mortality in smokers with Covid-19. Smokers also tend to have more severe cases of Covid-19, even when they survive.
We already know that smoking negatively affects the immune system and creates a weaker respiratory system. We also know that in the previous Covid virus outbreak MERS, smokers generally had a worse outcome than the non-smoking population.
Very early on in the current pandemic, I listened to an interview with an American physician with an expertise in infectious diseases. This physician predicted that the United States would suffer more than other countries because 74% of the population is overweight, and within that, 40% are clinically obese. Unfortunately, it seems this prediction has come true.
“BMI is the Achilles’ heel for American patients,” says Jennifer Lighter, an epidemiologist at New York University’s Langone School of Medicine. Lighter explained that BMI could be a crucial factor in the death toll, particularly for those under 60. “In China it was smoking and pollution, and Italy had a larger older population, and many grandparents lived with extended families. Here, it’s BMI that’s the issue, ” stated Lighter.
Obese patients under 60 years old who become infected with Covid-19 are twice as likely to end up in the ICU. In this under 60 age group, obesity was the single biggest factor for being put on a mechanical ventilator—more than age, gender, diabetes, or hypertension.
So here again, a controllable risk factor has been playing a huge role in Covid-19 outcomes. Being obese shortens life span and health span as well as being an underlying cause of heart disease, diabetes, cancers, high blood pressure, and much more.
One of the biggest predictors of death from Covid-19 is getting to a stage called ARDS-Advance Respiratory Disease Syndrome. 45% of the people who get to that stage of illness will die. Professor Zhen Yan, a professor of cardiovascular medicine who runs a molecular exercise physiology lab at UVA, has shown that exercise boosts the production of an antioxidant known as extracellular superoxide dismutase. This powerful antioxidant protects against acute lung disease and other diseases. In particular, Yan says, the antioxidant can protect one from getting to ARDS.
In addition, multiple studies, done by the British Medical Journal, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the American Journal of Medicine, have already shown that the immune system benefits from exercise. It is still too early to have accurate data from Covid-19 patients and their exercise habits (or lack thereof), and how it influenced their outcomes. However, indirect evidence indicates that exercisers should be faring better than non-exercisers and inactive individuals.
The immune system
Evidence shows that those with a compromised immune system have poorer outcomes from Covid-19. This has been talked about widely in the media. But for the most part, this is also a controllable risk factor. Yes, there are many things that can compromise our immune system. Having undergone chemotherapy, taken many medications, having diabetes, poor diet, alcohol, smoking, sedentary lifestyle, stress and obesity are some of the more common factors. How do we build a good immune system for protection from Covid-19 and all other potentially harmful diseases?
Diet plays a huge role. T. Colin Campbell, PhD, professor of nutrition at Cornell University and author of The China Study, suggests strengthening our immune systems to fight the COVID-19 pandemic through a diet of whole, plant-based foods.
In a recent commentary, titled “Our Most Important Defense Against COVID-19: Finding Hope through Scientific Evidence,” Campbell suggests several dietary strategies. A diet high in produce, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, without highly processed foods, and with minimal animal proteins is what Campbell suggests is best. He adds that this does not mean people won’t get infected by the virus, but it should increase their defenses to avoid the worst effects from the infection, and in doing so, help to flatten the curve of hospitalizations.
Although diet is certainly an important player, stress management, and as previously mentioned exercise, also are key factors to building a strong immune system.
As with many other facets of health, there is a lot that we can control and need to control in order to maintain good health. Yes, good hygiene and social distancing are critical at this time. Still, we all must start paying attention to the factors that can make us less vulnerable at this critical time. Paying attention to building a great immune system will definitely “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”