More than 76 million people in the U.S. have contracted COVID-19 since the pandemic began two years ago. Of those, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 900,000 people have died. In between death and complete recovery lies a gray area of “long COVID,” in which people are no longer infected by the virus but continue to suffer from it.
Some of those long-term symptoms are related to cardiovascular health.
“There is a higher burden of comorbid heart disease in the Appalachian area compared to the rest of the state of Virginia,” he said. After experiencing COVID, “about 4% more patients will experience cardiovascular disease who would not have."
Some of the symptoms people are reporting post-recovery can mimic the symptoms of the infection itself:
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Light-headedness or dizziness
- Chest pain
- Severe fatigue
“Unfortunately, a lot of patients struggle with feeling out of breath when they exert themselves, feeling tired all the time," said Dr. Roby. "I have a lot of people who have an abnormally fast heart rate, what we're beginning to document as a dysautonomia ... where the autonomic or the automatic nervous system is out of whack.”
Some COVID patients also develop myocarditis, a serious inflammation of the heart muscle that can reduce its functioning and cause rapid or irregular heart rhythms. While some people cite the risk of myocarditis as a reason for not getting vaccinated against the disease, Dr. Roby emphasized the "dramatically higher risk of myocarditis when you get COVID.”
“Your risk of getting myocarditis following an mRNA vaccine is somewhere in the range of 1 to 10 in 100,000," he said. "If you get COVID, your risk is 146 in 100,000."
Much more common than cardiovascular damage from COVID-19 is the effect of stress and depression on heart health.
“We saw a lot of what we call stress-induced cardiomyopathy, or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, from just the overall stress of the pandemic actually causing the body to have a surge in hormones and actually attacking the heart and causing the heart to become weak and almost mimicking a heart attack," said Dr. Roby.
A common name for the condition is "broken heart syndrome."
"Fortunately, those patients usually get better," said Dr. Roby, "but it’s just an example of the toll the pandemic is taking on people’s hearts."
Like all things related to our hearts and our overall well-being, prevention is the most important takeaway. The best thing you can do to protect your heart is to avoid contracting COVID-19 in the first place.
Not to mention:
- Quitting smoking
- Eating a healthy, plant-based diet
- Exercising regularly
- Seeing your primary care physician regularly for checkups and screenings