Even Beyond the Disease, COVID Has Impacted Our Heart Health

Our hearts have a great task. Despite their impressive task of keeping us alive every second of every day, they too have felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. They may have been harmed by the disease itself or indirectly affected by the way we have had to change our lives and habits.

A little over two years after the World Health Organization declared the global COVID-19 pandemic, researchers are still working to understand the cascading action of the respiratory virus through the body. Scientists are also recognizing other, less direct, effects of COVID-19. Stress, lifestyle changes, increased alcohol consumption, and barriers to accessing health care—in addition to the disease itself—affect people’s heart health and lead to an increase in heart disease.

heart disease describes more than a sudden heart attack — it’s a broad term for several conditions that affect heart function, and it can go hand-in-hand with other common health conditions, including diabetes. High blood pressure is an important risk factor for heart disease.

While heart disease is still that leading cause of death worldwidemodern treatments and prevention efforts have led to a steady decline in the number of deaths in recent decades. Now the pandemic is threatening advances in heart health. The age-adjusted death rate from heart disease and stroke in the US increased from 2019 to 2020, according to a to learn published at the end of March. The increase was highest among black Americans, who had a five-fold increase compared to white individuals.

The COVID-19 disease that attacks the heart, blood vessels and other important parts of the body is responsible for some cases of heart disease and damage. But the rich, everyday factors that make or break our health, including being able to make an appointment or otherwise social determinants of healthalso likely played a role in the increased mortality observed in the study, says Dr. Amy Pollak, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic.

“Most of my patients have seen significant changes in how much they exercise or have changed their diet over the past two years,” says Pollak. “And that can affect our blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol — as can changes in activity, which affect our health and stress levels.”

According to a February survey by the Cleveland Clinic, 40% of Americans have suffered from at least one heart-related problem since the start of the pandemic, which includes things like shortness of breath or high blood pressure.

This is how the pandemic has taken hold of the heart.

ECG monitor

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How stress and social isolation hurt the heart

Stress releases cortisola hormone that can raise cholesterol levels over time, blood sugarBlood pressure and triglycerides – all of which can increase the risk of heart disease.

For better or worse (mostly bad), our bodies retain stress. In the third year of the pandemic, most people have experienced some level of stress stemming from loss, grief, boredom, complacency, or other emotions. While our collective Mental health has plummetedThe pandemic has also contributed to more daily stressors in some people’s lives that are less dramatic and harder to pinpoint, such as from homeschooling, changing jobs, or fear of illness.

Stress can also sap your energy and make you tired, which can lead to this other factors that adversely affect heart health, such as overeating, lack of exercise and improper use of medication. Inactivity (which is common among people who are stuck at home or two years away from their favorite sports group or gym) increases your risk coronary heart diseaseor a buildup in the vessels that carry blood and oxygen throughout the body.

Social isolation and loneliness have also shaped much of the COVID-19 pandemic, with older adults shouldering the shoulder much of the burden even before COVID-19. A to learn on heart disease risk, social isolation and loneliness found that postmenopausal women who experienced both were 27% more likely to develop heart disease than their peers. While the study was conducted before the pandemic, Pollak worries the impact will be even more pronounced now. And also harder to describe medically.

“We don’t understand the ‘why’ that much,” says Dr. pollak. “How much of that has to do with if you’re feeling socially isolated, do you also have changes in your physical activity or diet? Or are you less likely to make these positive blood pressure monitoring decisions?”

Empty highway during lockdownEmpty highway during lockdown

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But the role of chronic stress and the toxic effect too much cortisol has on our bodies is probably strongly related to the experiences of people in social isolation.

“We know that chronic stress, independent of diet and lifestyle choices, is independently associated with a higher risk of heart attack or stroke,” says Pollak.

Stress, loneliness or other emotions can also lead to us reaching for the bottle. About a quarter of America said they were drinking more to cope with the stress of the pandemic and combined another cultural change in our views on alcohol with potentially negative consequences for our heart health.

dr Arun Sridhar is a cardiologist and assistant professor of cardiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He sees the rise in alcohol consumption as an increased risk of atrial fibrillation – an irregular, often fast heartbeat – one of the most common types of arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat).

“We have seen an increase in the number of patients with atrial fibrillation and cardiac arrhythmia,” says Sridhar. But he can’t say with certainty that all of these cases are a direct result of alcohol because there are other factors at play besides people who drink more – including people who don’t come to follow-up for an existing heart condition or who delay treatment care all together.

“All of these things have increased the number of patients coming in for arrhythmia treatment today,” says Sridhar.

The heartbreak of belated care

As hospital capacity has been stretched in various places and non-emergency appointments have been canceled in recent years, the inability to show up for blood pressure checks or other primary care appointments is also impacting American hearts.

Sridhar says he’s concerned about the delay in getting healthcare for what he calls “long-term maintenance issues”. A major cardiac event, like a heart attack or even palpitations, is usually notable enough to seek help and care, he says. But when it came to treating high blood pressure, diabetes, or other direct risk factors for heart disease, patients didn’t come for treatment, either for fear of the cost or hospital exposure.

But patients may not need to come in to have their blood pressure checked as long as they have the right equipment at home. Some Research from Great Britain suggests that patients equipped with a blood pressure monitor and collaborating with a healthcare team via video for medication advice and education may be able to manage their hypertension more effectively.

The obstacle to this type of telemedicine care for more people is, of course, the devices. Patients must be connected to the video system required by their provider, a blood pressure monitor (which can cost you anywhere from $30 to $200) and someone to help you set it up if needed.

blood pressure monitorblood pressure monitor

Researchers are finding patients can effectively monitor their own blood pressure at home through telemedicine — saving time (and COVID-19 exposure) for many more people.

Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

How long COVID affects the heart

Some people who have recovered from COVID-19 must still feel like they used to, plagued by persistent symptoms that affect their daily lives. For people who live with long COVIDAnswers to its cause and possible treatments remain pending, while new symptoms are added to the extensive list almost daily.

Arrhythmia or abnormalities in your heartbeat is a symptom of long COVID. Another reason is the breathless feeling that some people easily do something that would not have bothered them before the infection. This breathlessness is caused by changes in the heart’s ability “to increase output,” says Sridhar, or changes in how much energy we can muster.

A large study published in the last month Nature magazine outlined the far-reaching impact of COVID-19 on heart health. The study examined data from millions of medical records in the US Department of Veteran Affairs database. Not only can COVID-19 affect the heart vessels and damage the muscle when people are acutely ill, but also 30 days after infection, people had a higher risk of various types of cardiovascular diseases, including cerebrovascular disorders, arrhythmias , ischemic and non-ischemic heart diseases , pericarditis, myocarditis, heart failure and thromboembolic diseases.

“If anyone ever thought COVID was like the flu, this should be one of the most powerful pieces of data to suggest it’s not,” Dr. Eric Topol, cardiologist at Scripps Research said science.

The heart is one of the most important organs in our body (perhaps second only to the brain). Given the irreplaceable role it plays in our ability to sustain life, even small disruptions in the functioning of its systems can disrupt daily life. More research and time are needed to measure the full impact of COVID-19 on the heart.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions about a medical condition or health goals.

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