New research suggests cardiovascular damage can be a serious complication of COVID-19.
It’s now well-known that COVID-19 primarily affects the respiratory system. However, as doctors and scientists learn more about how the virus affects the body, they’re discovering it also has serious consequences for heart health. A recent study published in JAMA Cardiology revealed that 78 percent of 100 patients who had recovered from COVID-19 showed heart damage on a follow-up MRI.
Research into COVID-19 and its impact on the heart remains in the early stages. For patients with underlying conditions such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes, these preliminary studies are nevertheless a reminder of the importance of preventing infection and maintaining good cardiac care.
How COVID-19 Affects the Heart
Similar to how it strikes the lungs, COVID-19 invades heart cells, leading to an inflammation of the heart muscle known as myocarditis. This inflammation forces the heart to work harder to pump blood, which may cause irregular heartbeats and eventually heart disease. What’s more, as heart cells become increasingly inflamed, the body’s natural response is to rev up the immune system. As immune cells attack healthy cells, inflammation grows throughout the organ, creating a vicious cycle of heart damage.
In the recent JAMA Cardiology study, some of the subjects had pre-existing cardiac conditions that put them at higher risk of heart damage from the virus. However, others were healthy and did not exhibit any evidence of a possible underlying risk factor.
The findings of that study were further supported in another investigation published in Heart Rhythm Journal. Researchers estimated that up to a third of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 had an elevated level of troponin, an enzyme present after a heart attack.
Although those suffering from chronic conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes stand the greatest chance of COVID-19-related cardiovascular damage, even young and healthy people could sustain a compromised heart after recovering from the virus. Recently, Eduardo Rodriguez, 27, a Major League Baseball pitcher, announced he would not play this season due to heart inflammation he developed after COVID-19.
What it Means for You
More investigation is needed into the connection between COVID-19 and the heart, as well as into any possible long-term effects from the virus. At this time, preliminary studies and anecdotal reports strongly indicate cardiovascular disease could be one compilation of the virus. Therefore, if you suffer from heart disease or another chronic condition that puts you at elevated risk of heart damage from COVID-19, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, you should speak to your cardiologist. He or she may perform an echocardiogram to detect any structural damage to the heart.
Even those who have tested positive for the virus but are asymptomatic should see a doctor if they experience any symptoms of heart disease, including shortness of breath, swelling in the legs, and chest pain. COVID-19-induced heart damage in some patients could be treated with therapies used for cardiovascular disease, such as cholesterol-lowering medications, aspirin, or beta blockers.
The best advice to prevent heart damage related to COVID-19 is to avoid contracting the virus. That requires practicing social distancing, wearing a mask when in public places, and washing your hands frequently. Contact your doctor if you think you’ve been exposed to the virus and/or have the symptoms of COVID-19 — high fever, cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue — to get tested.
The spread of the coronavirus underscores how vital it is to take care of your heart. During the pandemic, continue to eat a heart-healthy diet, exercise, and quit smoking. That way, you’ll stay healthy and prevent the infection from harming your heart.