It’s no secret that the risk of heart disease increases with age, but what about after a COVID infection? Experts are still trying to determine the long-term effects of the virus, but preliminary research indicates that there may be an increased risk of heart attack and stroke in adults over the age of 50.
If you’re concerned about your risk, talk to your doctor about ways to lower your chances of developing heart disease. To learn more about how COVID affects the heart, continue reading.
How COVID Affects the Heart
COVID-19 can cause a range of heart problems, from mild to severe. And while it can cause a whole host of heart complications, it affects the heart by a few main mechanisms:
1. Virus RNA attack
The SARS-Cov-2 virus contains RNA (ribonucleic acid). This is the genetic material that helps the virus replicate and spread. But this RNA can also directly attack the heart muscle cells, causing inflammation and damage.
2. Cytokine storm
Cytokines are proteins that help regulate the immune system. They help to fight off infection by calling other immune cells to the site of infection. But sometimes, in a severe viral infection like COVID-19, the body can produce too many cytokines. This can cause a “cytokine storm,” where the immune system is overactivated and causes widespread inflammation throughout the body.
Potential heart complications include myocarditis (inflammation), arrhythmias (abnormal rhythms), stroke, and cardiomyopathy (weakening of the heart muscle).
While most people recover from COVID without any long-term heart problems, some may be at risk for developing cardiovascular disease later in life.
COVID Effects on Heart Health
There is still a lot we don’t know about how COVID-19 affects heart health long-term. We do know that the virus can cause acute (short-term) problems with the heart, and there is some evidence that it may also lead to long-term heart damage.
A recent COVID-19 study by the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) looked at people who had been hospitalized with COVID-19 over a long term. The researchers found that in the year after recovery from infection, the previously infected individuals faced a much higher risk of over 20 cardiovascular conditions– including heart attacks and strokes. The study found that these people were more likely to have:
The most common heart-related problem seen in people with COVID is myocarditis or inflammation of the heart muscle. Myocarditis can cause chest pain, irregular heartbeat, and even heart failure.
The coronavirus can also cause arrhythmias or abnormal heart rhythms. Arrhythmias can be dangerous and even life-threatening. A common sign of an arrhythmia is palpitations or feeling like your heart is racing or skipping a beat.
COVID-19 can also lead to cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle. Cardiomyopathy can make it hard for the heart to pump blood and lead to heart failure. You might feel shortness of breath, fatigue, or swelling in your legs or abdomen if you have cardiomyopathy.
Blood Clots and Strokes
COVID-19 can also cause a stroke. A stroke happens when there is a blockage or clot in the blood vessels that supply the brain. This can cause damage to the brain. The common signs of a stroke are sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg, sudden confusion or trouble speaking, and sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
If you have any of these symptoms, you must get to a hospital immediately.
An irregular heartbeat, also called dysrhythmia, is another common heart complication seen in people with COVID-19. Dysrhythmia can be caused by myocarditis, cardiomyopathy, or other heart problems. Dysrhythmia can be hard to detect, but some common signs are feeling like your heart is racing or skipping a beat, shortness of breath, and chest pain.
Heart Disease Post COVID Infection
While most people recover from COVID-19 without any long-term heart problems, some may be at risk for developing cardiovascular disease later in life.
The VA study found that people admitted to the ICU with COVID-19 are six times more likely to develop heart disease than those who were not hospitalized. The study also found that people who have had COVID-19 are at an increased risk for developing other cardiovascular diseases, such as strokes, heart failure, and high blood pressure.
However, COVID-19 is still a new disease, and understanding of its long-term effects is still evolving. More research is needed to understand how it affects the heart long-term and what this means for people’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
COVID-19 can cause various heart problems, including myocarditis, arrhythmias, cardiomyopathy, and stroke. While most people recover from COVID-19 without any long-term heart problems, some may be at risk for developing cardiovascular disease later in life. If you have had COVID-19, you must talk to your doctor about your risk of developing heart disease. Your doctor can help you manage your risk factors and ensure you get the care you need.