By Dr. Jeffrey Gladden

Many of my patients report that 2020 has been the most difficult year of their lives. A global pandemic has coincided with an economic crisis and tremendous political upheaval. It’s no surprise that many people are feeling anxious and uncertain about the future.

Good news is on the horizon: Researchers expect a COVID-19 vaccine to be widely available in 2021. Once the majority of the population has developed lasting immunity, this pandemic will come to a gradual end.

But we won’t return to normal life immediately. For many of us, a “normal life” will never return. Instead, we’ll move toward a “new normal.” Our new lives will carry a heightened awareness of medical risks. In the long run, this mental shift may offer some benefits. The pandemic has inspired many people to boost their health and longevity.

I encourage my patients to look toward 2021 with wellness in mind. Life after the pandemic can be better than ever before. If you’re looking to improve your post-COVID life, consider the following tips.

Be aware of significant risk factors

By now, most people are aware of the risk factors for COVID-19 complications. Chronic illnesses like diabetes and hypertension dramatically increase patient mortality rates. Obesity also plays a significant role in determining the outcomes of COVID-19 infection.

As we look to the future, keep in mind that these conditions aren’t temporary health risks. Obesity, hypertension, and diabetes have always been major risk factors for early mortality. If you have a chronic disease, now is the time to get it under control. After a widespread vaccination program, the risk of COVID-19 will decline. But the uncontrolled chronic disease can still put your health in jeopardy. Obesity also hinders your recovery after an illness or injury.

My hope is that COVID-19 will serve as a public wake-up call. A healthy lifestyle can help cut your health risks during and after the pandemic. Regular exercise and a well-balanced diet keep your weight in check. Patients with chronic diseases should also make a fresh commitment to their health. Managing chronic illnesses helps reduce the risk of a health crisis.

Take a closer look at your genetics

Your genetics play a significant role in wellness and longevity. COVID-19 has taught us that some patients are more prone to inflammatory responses. Increased inflammation can put certain individuals at a higher risk of complications. Genetic testing allows doctors to understand each patient’s unique risk factors.

A genetic test may help you understand your likelihood of adverse health outcomes. Your doctor can arrange for testing and interpret your results. Genetic test results help you make better decisions until the vaccine is available. A comprehensive genetic profile also allows you to optimize your long-term health.

Use sensible precautions to continue to avoid infection

Although the end of the current pandemic is in sight, future pandemics are bound to occur. To prepare for future health crises, citizens need to stay vigilant. Fortunately, common-sense recommendations do help limit the spread of disease.

If you’re feeling sick, it’s best to stay home. Individuals who must go out should wear a mask and practice social distancing. If you expect to be in a crowded area, consider wearing a mask and be mindful of hand hygiene by using hand sanitizer. These precautions help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Common sense precautions also fight against influenza and viral pneumonia. These illnesses claim tens of thousands of American lives each year. They’ll stick around long after COVID has been checked by a vaccine. I encourage patients to keep using the precautions they’ve learned during the pandemic. They may help protect against future viral illnesses.

Take care of your mental health

During the last few months, our society has received a timely reminder: Depression and anxiety pose serious health risks. If you struggle with your mental health, take steps now to develop a support team.

Consider speaking with a therapist or counselor. Online support groups may be helpful, too. Create an action plan and decide what to do if symptoms of mental illness strike. Sadly, the pandemic has left many people traumatized and destabilized. Proper mental health care may be needed to ensure your recovery.

Fight against panic

2020 has been a frightening year for many of my patients. But they often have more control over their lives than they think. You, too, can take steps to mitigate health risks and protect your psyche.

If you’re feeling frantic, make a list of everything you can control. Consider your diet, exercise, sleep cycle, and medication regimen. Then explore nutritional supplements, meditation, biofeedback, or therapy. Making a healthcare plan helps you stay grounded. With the right tools in your arsenal, you can stay healthy. You’ll also look toward the future with a more positive attitude.

Taking action helps you develop a growth mindset. These healthy thinking habits can carry you through as we wait for a vaccine. They also renew your commitment to wellness, ensuring your health long after the pandemic.