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Study Finds Lingering Heart Issues from COVID-19

In the wake of all the restrictions, hardships, and disruptions, many people have taken the stance that they’re fed up with trying to avoid COVID-19, and just want to get back to normal, pre-pandemic life.

“If I get it, I get it,” is the attitude. Some think infection for everyone is inevitable eventually, while others believe “it’s no worse than the common cold.”

Our primary care doctors in Delray Beach don’t know whether the first idea is true, but for many, infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus is far worse than a cold or the flu.

For one thing, we’re approaching one million Americans dead from COVID-19. Then there’s the still-unknown number who are dealing with the lingering aftereffects from the virus. Known as “long COVID,” symptoms include extreme fatigue and muscle weakness, brain fog, and shortness of breath, among others.


Heart complications

One of the most concerning effects associated with long COVID was highlighted in a study released this month in the journal Nature Medicine. Using data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), researchers tracked more than 153,000 veterans who had been infected with the coronavirus for a year after they recovered.

They found that, compared with those who had never been infected, those who had COVID-19 were 60 percent more likely to experience such long-term symptoms as heart failure, heart attacks, strokes, inflammatory heart disease, irregular heart rhythms, and potentially deadly clotting in the legs and lungs.

“One thing that was sobering was that the risk was evident even in people who had very mild disease or did not need hospitalization,” lead researcher Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, chief of research and development at the VA St. Louis Health Care System, told CNN.

Al-Aly, who is also a clinical epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis, said researchers expected to find some increase in heart problems following a bout with COVID-19 infection, but they thought it would be mainly in those with otherwise poor health.


Risk ‘everywhere’

“It was a bit of a moment for us when we realized it was evident in all of these subgroups,” he told NBC News, “including younger adults, older adults, Black people, White people, people with obesity and those without.

“The risk was everywhere,” he said.

It was, however, more pronounced in those who had more severe forms of the disease. Those who’d had the disease but hadn’t been hospitalized were twice as likely to have a pulmonary embolism as those who hadn’t been infected. But those who had been treated for COVID-19 in the ICU were 21 times more likely to have one.

And compared with those who had never had COVID-19, those who had been infected were five times more likely to develop inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) a year later. This held true whether or not the individual had been vaccinated, an important finding because myocarditis has also been a very rare complication from the mRNA vaccines.


COVID-related symptoms worse

Other infections have been known to increase cardiovascular problems, including the flu and some types of enteroviruses. But the lingering effects from COVID-19 seem more widespread.

NYU Langone cardiologist Dr. Nieca Goldberg told CNN that previous types of infections that produced lingering heart issues seem different with the coronavirus. “[T]hose types of infections didn’t have the magnitude of disease that we’re seeing in COVID-19,” she told CNN.

Other studies have shown similar results. One study from Germany, for example, found that 78 percent of those who’d had COVID-19 also showed some type of heart abnormality afterward. And cardiologists across the country are seeing a sharp increase in heart problems with those who originally had mild or even no symptoms of infection.

Abhijeet Dhoble, a cardiologist at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston, recently told The Washington Post that the hospital has been seeing increases in arrhythmia, an abnormality in the timing of the heartbeat, and cardiomyopathy, a heart muscle disease, among post-COVID patients ages 30-70. Many of these people had no previous heart disease, reinforcing what other doctors have reported.

“We are seeing the same patterns at university clinics and the hospital,” he told the paper.


Causes unclear

Just as with other symptoms of long COVID, no one is sure what’s causing the unusual syndrome, particularly in those who were otherwise healthy before becoming infected.

Theories range from damage to cells in the heart muscle or residual damage to blood vessels throughout the body to the possibility that the protein spikes the virus uses to infect cells also provide an entryway to cells commonly found in the heart.

Regardless, experts recommend getting checked as soon as possible if you experience any unusual symptoms after having contracted COVID-19, especially sudden chest pain, weakness, or shortness of breath.

And be sure you’re fully vaccinated if you want to avoid post-COVID complications.

“Simply saying that you don’t want to become severely ill in the short term is not the full answer,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a CNN medical analyst and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. “Because there may be people who don’t become severely ill enough to be hospitalized immediately but may have multiple consequences.

“Again, that underscores the need for vaccination in order to reduce the chance of acquiring COVID in the first place.”

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