Women more likely to suffer from ‘long COVID,’ but healthy habits can lower the risk
Women who embrace six healthy lifestyle factors can cut their long COVID risk in half, per a new study led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Here's what to know and why.
When 33-year-old Katie Timmerman tested positive for COVID-19 in January 2022, the busy vice president of a PR firm in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, figured she’d be sick for a few days.
Her only symptoms were a bad headache and a sore throat, she said.
But then the headaches grew worse and were sometimes debilitating — and they never left.
Now, over a year later, Timmerman still experiences severe daily headaches, something she said she never dealt with before she came down with the virus.
"They always originate in the back of my head, reaching from ear to ear and descending into my neck," she told Fox News Digital.
"Traditional pain relievers and most migraine medications don't touch them."
Sometimes the headaches come with nausea and bouts of brain fog, she said — which make it difficult for her to focus or think clearly.
Timmerman is among many — one in every 13 adults in the U.S., per CDC data — who suffer from "long COVID," which is marked by symptoms that persist for three months or longer after infection.
Women are nearly twice as likely as men to fall into this group, the CDC also said.
Now, a new study led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which was published in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggests that women who take steps toward a healthy lifestyle can cut their long COVID risk in half.
In 2017, as part of a prior study, more than 32,000 female nurses ranging from ages 55 to 75 completed questionnaires about their health-related behaviors. Later, for the long COVID study, researchers analyzed nearly 2,000 of those women who had tested positive between April 2020 and November 2021.
When determining the health of each woman’s lifestyle, researchers considered six important factors: diet/nutrition, physical activity, body mass index (BMI), smoking activity, alcohol consumption and sleep patterns.
Women who led healthy lifestyles for most of those factors were about half as likely to suffer from long COVID compared to those who did not show healthy behaviors in any of the six areas.
The study also found that unhealthy lifestyle factors contributed to chronic inflammation, blood clots and disruptions to the immune system, all of which have been associated with long COVID.
The findings didn’t surprise Dr. Christian Sandrock, who specializes in emerging infectious diseases at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, California.
His clinic has treated hundreds of patients with long COVID in the past two years, with women making up the majority.
"We do know that people with preexisting cardiac and metabolic conditions — which include those with diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure — tend to be more at risk for developing long COVID," Sandrock told Fox News Digital.
As people with less healthy lifestyles are more likely to have those conditions, it stands to reason they’d be more vulnerable to prolonged COVID symptoms.
"If you get COVID and you’re already living a healthier lifestyle — if you're more fit, eating better, exercising regularly, sleeping better and you've reduced your stress with things like meditation or yoga — you'll be much more likely to come out on the other side with fewer long-term consequences," Dr. Sandrock said.
However, that doesn’t mean someone with a healthy lifestyle is immune to long COVID.
Timmerman considered herself to be in good health prior to getting the virus, with no pre-existing conditions or concerns.
"I was health-conscious with my nutrition, our family was active outdoors, and I was also fully vaccinated against COVID at the time I contracted it," she said.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines long COVID as "the continuation or development of new symptoms three months after the initial SARS-CoV-2 infection, with these symptoms lasting for at least two months with no other explanation."
Steven G. Deeks, M.D., is a professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and a faculty member in the division of HIV, Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.
He and his team are following a cohort of 700 COVID patients, 200 of whom have long COVID.
"Everyone experiences long COVID differently," he told Fox News Digital.
"And those experiences can vary from week to week and month to month. It’s a collection of many non-specific symptoms, which makes it very challenging to treat."
Currently, Deeks’ main treatment for long COVID includes rehabilitation and physical therapy.
In Timmerman’s case, her headaches began on the very same day she tested positive for COVID.
Her doctors ruled out other possible causes through imaging and blood tests, leading them to consider the headaches as lingering long COVID symptoms.
Today, Timmerman needs daily pain relievers to function; she’s had some success with a migraine medication called Qulipta.
"I'm now working with a neurologist, who is digging deeper to see if she can uncover any additional issues or underlying causes of the persisting headaches, or if they'll just continue to be treated as persisting long COVID headaches," she said.
Headaches aren’t the only ailment associated with long COVID.
Sandrock of Sacramento has seen patients suffering from lingering chest pain, shortness of breath, severe fatigue, sleep disorders, depression, anxiety and other symptoms long after the onset of the virus.
The good news: Dr. Sandrock is seeing a decline in classic long COVID cases over time.
"I think the virus itself has changed and has become more of a cold-like virus. And more people are vaccinated, so they're getting less severe disease," he said.
And many people with long COVID do get better, he said — although it often feels like a long, slow slog.
"I usually ask my patients: If you look back, how did you feel three or six months ago, and how do you feel now? They usually realize that they’re definitely better. Maybe six months ago, they couldn't even get out of bed for 10 minutes, and now they can work for two hours a day."
Just as a healthy lifestyle can help stave off long COVID, it can also serve as treatment, experts suggest.
In efforts to find relief from her debilitating headaches and return to some sense of normalcy, Timmerman has focused more on nutrition and exercise since getting the virus.
"Caffeine provides some relief for my headaches, so tea and coffee have become daily rituals in my life," she said.
"I've also noticed that exercise is helpful for relieving some of the discomfort, so I've made an even bigger effort to include regular physical activity in my daily routines. I've also incorporated massage therapy into my life."