Pulmonologists, intensive care teams, and emergency responders have been spearheading the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. over the past several months, but do not be surprised if we see another group of specialists to be more involved than ever during these tough times: cardiologists. In a nation that eats and drinks too much, exercises a little, and often fails to show up on their appointment to the doctor — combine those behaviors, which are also causes for cardiovascular disease — and put those people in lockdown for over a year, and you can only expect the conditions to get worse.
Lifestyle Changes Throughout the Pandemic
The American Heart Association (AHA) recently predicted a large increase in cardiovascular diseases and deaths in the coming months and years caused mainly by the lifestyle changes people were forced to have when the pandemic took over.
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“We don’t have a lot of well-vetted data up to the minute on the cardiovascular impact of COVID because we are living through the pandemic now,” says Dr. Mitch Elkind, AHA president and a professor of epidemiology and neurology at Columbia University.
“That new data will come in the next year or two, but we are anticipating that the pandemic will have a significant impact,” she added.
In some instances, SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, directly infects and damages heart tissue. A study published in JAMA Cardiology, for instance, has found that out of a sample group of 100 people who recovered from COVID-19, 78 experienced an inflammation or scarring of the myocardial tissue.
In a separate JAMA Cardiology study, of the 39 patients who died due to COVID-19, researchers reportedly found SARS-COV-2 in the heart tissue of 61.5% of the patients.
In both studies, the sample group may be small, and heart diseases may not be the main cause of death in the majority of COVID cases. However, they present to us a related truth: the pandemic seemingly drives people into a kind of lifestyle that can potentially cause heart disease in the long run.
Other Potential Factors
A JAMA study published in September 2020 also showed that alcohol consumption increased by 14% in a sample group of 150 adults in the midst of the pandemic. A study from the same month also showed a decrease in physical activity among 32.3% of adults who were physically active before.
It’s not just these factors, however, that can cause death for people. Elkind and the AHA also cited depression due to the isolation brought by quarantining and emotional stress because of economic hardships. Now that medical facilities are seen as an unsafe zone for people to be in during an outbreak, people will naturally be less likely to show up for regular monitoring of cholesterol levels, hypertension, and other chronic illnesses that can have a cardiovascular impact. “We know people have delayed getting care for heart attacks and strokes, which can lead to poorer outcomes,” said Dr. Salim Virani, chairman of the committee that wrote the AHA statistical update.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 655,000 people die from cardiovascular diseases every year in the U.S.
The good news that can be seen beyond the bad ones is that some of the cardiovascular risks associated with COVID-19 can be controlled. Just like how masks help slow down the transmission of the coronavirus, healthier lifestyle routines can also lessen the risks of heart disease.