For vaccinated people who are unlikely to get very sick from COVID, one of the biggest fears surrounding the disease is its long-term effects. Yes, this means long COVID, but it isn’t limited to long-term symptoms. Having COVID can increase your risk of other health conditions down the line, including some that can kill. According to a recent study, this includes a smattering of potentially deadly heart problems.
For a recent study published in the journal Nature Medicine, a research team from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs examined the records of more than 150,000 U.S. veterans and found an increased risk of all types of heart disease in the year following a COVID infection. Though the majority of the records analyzed belonged to white men, the pattern held when the health records of women and people of color were analyzed separately.
The researchers found that in the year post-infection, there was a 63% higher risk of heart attack, a 69% higher risk of arrhythmia, a 52% higher risk of stroke, a 72% higher risk of heart failure, and a roughly three times higher risk of developing a pulmonary embolism when compared to people who were either had not been infected or whose data was collected prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The results held across demographics and in people who only experienced mild symptoms.
Experts aren’t sure how COVID causes this wide range of heart problems. However, it could be by causing dysfunction in the immune system or the lining of the inside of the heart and blood vessels, by increasing the risk of blood clots in veins or arteries, or by causing persistent inflammation, says Salim Virani M.D., Ph.D., a cardiology professor at Baylor College of Medicine and a member of the American College of Cardiology’s Science & Quality Council, who was not involved in the study.
As to why COVID impacts heart health so significantly, Virani says it’s likely not just the virus that’s the culprit. “The other aspect we should keep in mind is that COVID-19 (at least initially) disrupted care delivery, which can also increase various cardiovascular events due to delayed or neglected care.”
The pandemic has had other, more sociological, effects on heart health. “COVID-19 adversely impacted lifestyle, mental health, and adherence to healthy lifestyle and medications by a large number of individuals in the affected populations. All of these could also contribute to increased risk of various cardiovascular events as noted in this study,” he says.
It’s unclear how long the elevated risk of heart problems will remain after a person recovers from COVID. However, experts expect incidences of heart disease to skyrocket over the next few years. The American Heart Association is expecting “a tidal wave of cardiovascular events in the coming years from direct and indirect causes of COVID,” Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, president of the American Heart Association, told the Washington Post. Meanwhile, the American College of Cardiology is expected to release updated guidelines for post-infection patient monitoring and returning to exercise after symptoms have abated.
For those who have recovered from COVID, Virani says that a healthy lifestyle and vigilance regarding cardiac symptoms are key. “Individuals should (a) continue with an active lifestyle (healthy diet and maintaining physical activity, which is important for everyone but even more important in individuals post COVID; (b) make sure that they have regular checkups with their primary care clinician and follow their clinician’s advice on lifestyle and medications as needed; and (c) ensure that they seek early medical attention if they have any symptoms that are out of the ordinary.”