Healthy Habits We've Learned From COVID-19
Washing our hands better, cooking more at home, and using telemedicine can help protect us now and later
T he past few months have been scary and challenging, especially for older adults, who are more susceptible to life-threatening complications from COVID-19. But sheltering in place has given us a chance to learn better strategies for infection protection, to cook at home more often, and even to check in with physicians more frequently via telemedicine, says James Lai, M.D., a geriatrician at the Yale School of Medicine.
“It’s also been a time of deep gratitude and reflection,” says Bruce Rabin, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of pathology, psychology, and psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “Older adults are turning inward more to find contentment and beauty in day-to-day life. We appreciate things like family and friends even more now.”
Though we don’t know exactly what the next few months will bring in terms of the coronavirus, what we’ve learned may help us with whatever comes.
We Keep Germs at Bay
Learning proper hand-washing can help prevent up to 40 percent of diarrhea-related illnesses and up to 21 percent of respiratory infections (like COVID-19), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
We 'See' Our Docs in New Ways
In March, with many medical offices closed and hospitals and urgent care centers overburdened, Medicare and some private insurers expanded their coverage of telemedicine.
While virtual healthcare isn’t appropriate for everything or everyone, evidence suggests that it can play an important role for older adults.
And research points to high satisfaction levels. A 2019 study by Massachusetts General Hospital published in The American Journal of Managed Care involving 254 patients found that about 75 percent rated a telehealth consult as good or better than an in-person visit.
“Usually, it’s hard for a senior to get their doctor on the phone,” Dobschuetz says. “With a televisit, they get a doctor’s undivided attention for 20 to 30 minutes.”
Some doctors also notice the benefits. “With telemedicine, we can ‘see’ more patients,” says Nisha Rughwani, M.D., an associate professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “We need to allow time between in-person visits to thoroughly clean and disinfect a room, [so we] cannot have the same volume we previously did.”
We Eat a Bit Better
We’ve begun eating at home most of the time because of the pandemic, and a survey of 1,005 people by Hunter, a marketing firm, found that 54 percent of Americans have also been cooking more. A January 2020 study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition suggests that people who cook and eat at home tend to have healthier diets.
The Hunter survey also found that 57 percent of Americans said they were wasting less food during the pandemic, and that 60 percent reported searching for recipes that use ingredients they already had on hand.
“The hope is that even as restaurants gradually open up,” Rabin said, “people will continue to cook at home because it’s less expensive, healthier, and also relaxing.”
The Advantages of Age
Just as fine wine improves over the years, the ability to weather difficulties grows stronger with time. Going through life’s crises may help us become more resilient and patient, says Rabin. "These attributes are like muscles. They become stronger the more you use them,” he adds.
Gratitude helps, too. A 2019 review in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that the attitude was consistently higher in older adults. This may help explain the outpouring of support that essential frontline workers have received from seniors.
"I’ve been blown away by the level of appreciation I’ve seen from my patients, the emails and phone calls I’ve gotten thanking me for being there for them,” Rughwani says.
And this attitude may have health benefits. A study in the Journal of Health Psychology found that women who kept a “gratitude journal” for two weeks reported better moods and sleep, and had lower blood pressure than others.
Editor's Note: A version of this article also appeared in the August 2020 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.