Although coronavirus (COVID-19) is largely an illness of the lungs and respiratory system, research is now suggesting that the virus can cause quite a bit of damage to the heart and cardiovascular system.
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From the beginning of the pandemic, experts acknowledged that older adults and people with underlying health conditions, like heart disease, were at higher risk for developing COVID-19 (and all of the complications that come along with it). But now, early evidence suggests that heart abnormalities may be present in patients who didn’t experience a severe case of COVID-19 or who didn’t have any preexisting conditions.
About the data
The study examined and compared the hearts of 100 patients – some who had previously recovered from COVID-19 and others who never had the virus. Experts performed a heart MRI on each patient, which is a type of test that examines the structure and function of the cardiovascular system. It’s often used to assess the heart after a heart attack or stroke and can identify abnormalities, damage or inflammation.
The findings were sobering, as 78% of patients who previously had the virus showed structural changes or damage to their hearts, including inflammation and scarring.
Some of the COVID-19 patients had previously existing heart conditions, but even more mystifying was the fact that some patients with heart damage were relatively young, healthy and had no history of underlying risk factors.
“We should think of this cross-sectional study as a single snap shot in time, so we don’t know if any of these abnormalities were present before COVID-19,” says cardiologist Paul Cremer, MD, who did not take part in the study. “This research is certainly impactful and hints at possible damage to the heart, even when cardiac function is normal, but it primarily highlights the need for more research on the long-term effects of COVID-19.”
How could a respiratory infection cause so much damage to the heart?
We know that COVID-19 can cause extreme inflammation throughout the body, particularly in the heart. As a consequence of the high inflammation, oxygen and blood flow to the heart muscle can be decreased. This stress makes the heart work harder to pump blood throughout the body as it’s trying to fight the infection.
Massive levels of inflammation can trigger your body into something that doctors call a “cytokine storm,” in which the immune system basically overreacts and your immune cells start injuring healthy cells, further spurring the inflammation.
Some research suggest that COVID-19 can also directly infect and invade the cells in the cardiovascular system.
What can you do to protect yourself and your heart from COVID-19?
Maintaining a heart-healthy diet and exercise program is now more important than ever, says Dr. Cremer. Just because we’re in a pandemic does not mean we can lose sight of taking care of ourselves, especially our hearts. This also means not smoking, controlling our weight and stress levels and seeking medical care if we have a personal or family history of heart disease.
And when it comes to protecting yourself against COVID-19, it bears repeating what you’ve been hearing over the past several months: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, practice social distancing, wear a face mask and stay home when you’re sick.
Together we can slow the spread of the virus and help protect each other.