By Kathy Hubbard
We have often heard that if we suffer underlying conditions such as congestive heart failure, our susceptibility to hospitalization or death due to COVID-19 infection is exceptionally high. Studies are now showing that survivors of COVID-19 who didn’t have heart failure before catching the virus, even those who didn’t require hospitalization, may have a potential increased risk of heart failure after recovery.
Heart failure sounds like your heart isn’t working at all, but it means that your heart isn’t pumping enough oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the body’s cells. This results in feeling fatigued, being short of breath, and, in some cases, developing a chronic cough. Heart failure can affect your everyday living by making it difficult to do daily tasks like walking, climbing stairs, or carrying groceries.
“Heart failure is a serious condition, and usually there’s no cure,” The American Heart Association says. “But many people with heart failure lead a full, enjoyable life when the condition is managed with heart failure medications and healthy lifestyle changes. It’s also helpful to have the support of family and friends who understand your condition.”
AMA reported that studies concluded that nearly one-fourth of those hospitalized with COVID-19 had been diagnosed with cardiovascular complications. These complications have been shown to contribute to about forty percent of all COVID-19 related deaths.
“Very early into the pandemic, it was clear that many patients who were hospitalized were showing evidence of cardiac injury,” said Dr. Gregg Fonarow, chief of the division of cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “More recently, there is a recognition that even some of those COVID-19 patients not hospitalized are experiencing a cardiac injury. This raises concerns that there may be individuals who get through the initial infection but are left with cardiovascular damage and complications.”
Dr. Fonarow is concerned that common complications such as myocarditis (heart inflammation) could lead to heart failure in the future. He also said that he’s worried that people with diagnosed heart disease are reluctant to come to the hospital for treatment during the pandemic. That’s a subject for another day.
Two recent studies suggest heart damage among those infected may be widespread. An article published in the Journal of American Medical Association Cardiology said that an analysis of autopsies performed on thirty-nine COVID-19 patients identified heart infections in patients that hadn’t been diagnosed with cardiovascular issues previously.
“Another study used cardiac MRIs on 100 people who had recovered from COVID-19 within the past two to three months. Researchers found abnormalities in the hearts of 78% of recovered patients and ‘ongoing myocardial inflammation’ in 60%. The same study found high blood enzyme troponin levels, an indicator of heart damage, in 76% of patients tested, although heart function appeared to be generally preserved. Most patients in the study had not required hospitalization,” JAMA Cardiology said.
Dr. Mina Chung, a cardiologist and professor of medicine, said, “There’s a group of people who seem to be more affected from the cardiac point of view.” But she went on to say that it’s tough to identify who those people are.
“A lot of people end up feeling exhausted for a while. They can’t get up to the exertion level they were at before. But it’s difficult to tease out whether or not it’s the lungs taking a little more time to heal or whether it’s a cardiac issue,” said Chung. He is leading the coordination of more than a dozen ongoing COVID-19 research studies funded by the American Heart Association.
If this all sounds a little confusing to you, it does to me as well. More studies need to be conducted, and from what I’ve read, AMA for one is funding several of them. Dr. Fonarow said it best when he said, “The bottom line is, we don’t know.”
For now, if you’ve recovered from COVID-19 or even if you haven’t contracted the virus and you experience shortness of breath with exertion, chest pain, swelling of the ankles, heart palpitations, or an irregular heartbeat, not being able to lie flat without shortness of breath, waking up at night short of breath, lightheadedness or dizzy spells make an appointment to see your healthcare provider right away.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.