What we know about COVID-19 and the heart

COVID-19 can have effects on the entire body. While scientists are still working to understand everything they can about the disease, we know that reported symptoms range from headaches, loss of taste and smell, and more severe symptoms like difficulty breathing that may require hospitalization. But does COVID-19 also have effects on your heart?

Are you looking to understand the risk factors, who are most vulnerable, and how you can protect yourself if you have an existing heart condition? We dive into the research and the most important things to know below. Read on to learn more!


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Who is at the highest risk for COVID-19?

According to research, people with cardiovascular disease are more than twice as likely to contract severe forms of COVID-19 compared with the general population. Although adults of any age with certain underlying medical conditions are at increased risk for severe illness from the virus that causes COVID-19, it’s worth understanding how and why everyone should be taking extra steps to look out for their heart health as we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before exploring how COVID-19 can affect the heart muscle, let’s first understand what conditions may put you at a higher risk of severe illness from the virus that causes COVID-19.

Adults with the following conditions are at an increased risk of developing severe COVID-19:

  • Obesity and severe obesity
  • Cancer
  • Heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Smoking
  • Pregnancy
  • Sickle cell disease
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Type 2 diabetes mellitus
  • Down Syndrome

In addition to the conditions listed above, adults with the following conditions might have an increased risk of developing severe COVID-19:

  • Hypertension or high blood pressure
  • Weakened immune system from blood or bone marrow transplant, immune deficiencies, HIV, chronic use of high dose corticosteroids, or use of other immune weakening medicines
  • Overweight
  • Uncontrolled asthma
  • Cerebrovascular disease (stroke)
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Thalassemia
  • Liver disease
  • Type 1 diabetes mellitus
  • Neurologic conditions, such as dementia
  • Cystic fibrosis

Please note that these lists may not include every condition that might increase one’s risk for developing severe illness from COVID-19. Scientists are continually working to understand more about the disease and the people at most risk. To access the most up-to-date research, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

How does heart disease increase risk for COVID-19?

While having a pre-existing condition does not necessarily mean you are at a higher risk for contracting the virus that causes COVID-19, you are at a higher risk for being more vulnerable to a more serious illness. Scientists have found that pre-existing heart conditions, such as damaged heart muscle or blocked heart arteries, weaken the body’s ability to combat the illness.

Compared to someone without underlying medical problems, a person with a vulnerable heart is more likely to suffer from COVID-19 related complications, including fever, low oxygen levels, unstable blood pressures, and blood clotting disorders. Additionally, those with poor underlying metabolic health, which is more common in those with heart disease, are also at an increased risk.

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Can COVID-19 affect your heart?

We now know that those with existing heart problems have a higher risk of severe COVID-19 illness, but can the disease also have long-term effects on previously healthy hearts?

The short answer is yes. During infection, a COVID-19 patient may experience inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis), which weakens the heart muscle and could lead to an increased risk of heart failure or to the development of a dangerous heart rhythm.

One study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Cardiology found that 60% of COVID-19 patients had ongoing myocardial inflammation, independent of any pre-existing conditions. This shows that anyone, not just those who may already have heart or other health issues, may develop heart problems as a result of a COVID-19.

How can I check on my heart health during the COVID-19 pandemic?

It’s no secret that the global COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we work, learn, live, exercise, connect with friends and family, and more—everything is virtual these days. But it’s more important than ever to stay on top of your health.

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What steps can I take to protect my heart health during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Scientists all over the country and the world are still trying to understand the unknowns of COVID-19, including the effects it can have on the heart. While risk factors include certain pre-existing conditions, taking steps to prevent heart disease and protect your heart health is so important.

Here are some lifestyle changes that could help minimize your risk for heart disease:


In addition to protecting your heart health, continue to follow the CDC recommendations to keep yourself and your loved ones safe from COVID-19 by:

  • Wearing a mask
  • Staying at least 6 feet away from others
  • Avoiding crowds and travel when possible
  • Wash hands frequently
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue
  • Monitor your health daily and take steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 if you start to feel ill
  • Get vaccinated against COVID-19, when eligible

It’s important to keep in mind that anyone who is exposed to COVID-19 is at risk of becoming infected and developing serious symptoms or long-term effects. Even if you are not part of high-risk populations, you should take steps to protect yourself and those around you. To learn more about official COVID-19 protocols and best practices, visit the CDC recommendations.


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References

1. COVID-19 and the heart: What have we learned? Harvard Health Blog. URL. Accessed Feb. 27, 2021.

2. People with Certain Medical Conditions. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed Feb. 27. 2021.

3. COVID-19: Who's at higher risk of serious symptoms. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed Feb. 27, 2021

4. What COVID-19 is doing to the heart, even after recovery. American Heart Association. URL. Accessed Feb.27, 2021.

5. Puntmann, V. O., Carerj, M. L., Wieters, I., Fahim, M., Arendt, C., Hoffmann, J., Shchendrygina, A., Escher, F., Vasa-Nicotera, M., Zeiher, A. M., Vehreschild, M., & Nagel, E. (2020). Outcomes of Cardiovascular Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Patients Recently Recovered From Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). JAMA cardiology, 5(11), 1265–1273. URL. Accessed Feb. 27, 2021.

6. What to Do If You Are Sick. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed Feb. 27, 2021.

7. How to Protect Yourself & Others. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed Feb. 27, 2021.

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