There are some things you never fully appreciate until they are gone, such as your sense of smell and being able to walk upstairs without gasping for breath.
And that’s what millions are facing as a result of long Covid.
Thanks to the vaccines, there are signs we are finally getting on top of the virus. But we face another challenge in long Covid, with symptoms such as loss of sense of smell, breathlessness, extreme tiredness and brain fog, which in some people will last for months, possibly years.
I know quite a few people who either have or had long Covid, including one of my sons, Daniel, who spent nearly six months unable to smell anything; and a friend, Sarah, who is in her 50s and a year after getting Covid can still barely walk upstairs without pausing for breath.
Another friend, Louise, who is in her late 50s, lost her sense of smell and found that foods she normally enjoys tasted absolutely revolting.
As many as two million people in the UK could be affected, according to a recent study by Imperial College London.
Surprisingly, this also revealed that while men from ethnic minority groups are most at risk of dying from Covid if they catch it, women, particularly middle-aged white women, such as Sarah and Louise, are most likely to get long Covid.
Researchers at Cambridge University are looking at whether giving statins or a blood-thinning drug to patients when discharged from hospital helps long-term outcomes
What causes long Covid is still something of a mystery, although we know the virus can attack almost every organ, from your lungs to your heart, kidneys and brain.
One recent study found that people with long Covid reported more than 200 different symptoms, covering ten of the body’s major organs.
With the loss of smell, the most likely explanation is that the virus attacks nerve cells in your nose.
The prolonged fatigue and breathlessness is probably also the result of an attack on nerve cells, in particular nerve cells that form part of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates gut function, heart rate and breathing, among other things.
Evidence for this comes from a surprising source: fitness trackers.
Many, like me, use these to monitor our heart rate, physical activity and sleep.
The companies that sell these devices also store this data and now some smart researchers from the Scripps Research Institute in California have realised this kind of data, anonymised, could be used to compare what happens in the long term to people who have had Covid with those who have had other respiratory diseases, such as flu.
The researchers recruited 37,000 people who shared the data from their fitness trackers, as well as providing their symptoms and Covid test results via an app.
Using the details from 875 people, the researchers found that after several months, those who’d had Covid were sicker for longer, with a prolonged and striking rise in their heart rates (which remained elevated, on average, for over two months) and increased fatigue and breathlessness.
If you are one of the many people affected by long Covid, what can you do about it?
There are lots of trials testing different treatments — at Glasgow University, for example, they are recruiting people who are overweight or obese and have long Covid for an 850-calorie a day, rapid weight-loss trial.
As well as reducing cholesterol, statins are powerful anti- inflammatory agents, while blood-thinning drugs should prevent clots, a common complication of long Covid that can lead to strokes and heart damage
Previous research has shown that carrying a lot of excess fat raises the risk of dying if you get Covid, and makes long-term complications more likely.
Losing weight has been shown to reduce post-Covid fatigue, breathlessness and inflammation.
Meanwhile, researchers at Cambridge University are looking at whether giving statins or a blood-thinning drug to patients when discharged from hospital helps long-term outcomes.
As well as reducing cholesterol, statins are powerful anti- inflammatory agents, while blood-thinning drugs should prevent clots, a common complication of long Covid that can lead to strokes and heart damage.
If you suffer from fatigue, the advice is to remain as active as you can. The secret is to pace yourself, with lots of short rests, and slowly add more gentle exercise, such as a short walk, into your life.
And if, like my friend Louise, you’ve lost your sense of smell, you could try smell training — twice a day, you take a good long sniff from things that produce a distinctive, familiar smell, such as oranges, mint, garlic or coffee.
Studies suggest that if you do this for several weeks there’s a good chance your nose will spring back into action.
A coffee a day can help keep dementia at bay
Coffee is rich in healthy antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory compounds
These days, I have a fairly fixed morning ritual: after staggering out of bed at 7am and doing resistance exercises (press-ups, squats and the dreaded plank) I have a cup of black tea and take our dog for a walk, then have a cold shower, breakfast and the first of several cups of coffee.
So I was dismayed to read about a study, published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience, linking high coffee drinking with a higher risk of dementia.
But when I looked at the details of the research, I was relieved to see the link was only true if you were drinking more than six cups a day.
Even better, it turned out that light drinkers (one to two cups a day) not only had bigger brains and 53 per cent less chance of developing dementia than heavy coffee drinkers, but they also had bigger and healthier brains than those who didn’t drink the beverage at all, or who drank only decaf.
This may be because as well as being a stimulant, coffee is rich in healthy antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory compounds.
This could also explain the findings of a review of 200 studies, published in the BMJ in 2017, showing that moderate coffee drinking was associated with a lower risk of heart disease and cancer, and a lower rate of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
You might also want to avoid gulping down your coffee first thing.
Early in the morning, levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, start to rise, perking you up for the day ahead.
They peak around 30 minutes after you wake, then start to fall.
If you top up with caffeine while cortisol levels are high, it just replaces the boost you’d ordinarily get, rather than adding to it.
It takes around 20 minutes for the caffeine to really hit your brain — so if you wait at least 40 minutes for your first coffee, you should start to feel the effects around an hour after waking, just as the cortisol is beginning to wear off.
Delaying that first delicious sip also gives you something to look forward to!
I love Australia, not least as it’s home to some of my closest friends. It’s also home to some of the most poisonous creatures, including the Fraser Island funnel web spider.
But though deadly, this creature could save lives — its venom contains a protein, Hi1a, which Australian researchers have shown has the potential to protect against damage caused by stroke or heart attack.
Both of these deprive cells of oxygen, which in turn kills lots of other, nearby, cells.
This protein blocks this process and in lab studies reduced damage to the brain even when given up to eight hours after the stroke occurred.
Clinical trials are needed but the researchers think it could become a life-saving part of a paramedic’s kit.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about my terrible posture that’s making me look years older.
Since then, I’ve started yoga — and invested in a posture brace (I bought the most popular version from the internet).
It seems to be working. Even when I am not wearing it, I’m standing better and a friend who I haven’t seen for several months, said: ‘Wow, you’re looking great! Have you been working out?’
All very encouraging.