By: Diana Bello Aristizábal
Many things have been said about the coronavirus since the pandemic began. But what few know and that only recently became clear is that the impact of this virus is spreading, with increasing force, to the heart.
So this year, February’s Heart Health Awareness Month has taken a different turn. The heart of many people, even of those who have never been infected with the virus, are now at greater risk of facing a complication during the course of this pandemic.
“In the past, we thought that the coronavirus only affected the respiratory system. But now we know that 78 percent of patients who are diagnosed with the virus develop some form of cardiac issue,” says Iván Mendoza, medical director of cardiology at Jackson Memorial Hospital and Jackson South Medical Center.
According to the specialist, most patients that endure heart complications as a consequence of the coronavirus are asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms. However, some people develop more serious illnesses such as arrhythmias, heart attacks, pericardial effusions, and even sudden death.
For Allan Stewart, an expert in minimally invasive heart surgery, even healthy people who get sick with COVID-19 are developing heart problems. “People are leaving the hospital with half of their heart function,” Dr. Stewart warns.
About this, Dr. Mendoza also agrees that no one is completely safe from dealing with a heart condition, although he thinks obese patients, as well as those who have lung disease, some pre-existing heart problem, or that are monosuppressed, are at greater risk.
In addition, it has been discovered that a minority of patients who developed cardiac abnormalities during the course of the disease continue to have them long after they overcome it. “We still don’t know much about this virus because only a year ago we found the first case locally, but what we do know is that many people have not been able to recover,” says Dr. Mendoza.
But not only COVID-19 positive patients are at risk. Heart problems are also extending more to those who have never been diagnosed with the coronavirus, due to the lifestyle change the pandemic has brought.
The best remedy is a comprehensive approach
Whether you have a heart problem as a result of COVID-19, are at risk of suffering from one or has one already due to the lifestyle that has been led during the pandemic, there are many things that can be done in addition to the medical support.
According to Dr. Stewart, who is also the head of the cardiovascular surgical programs for HCA East Florida’s Miami-Dade facilities, which includes Kendall Regional Medical Center, among others, the pandemic has exacerbated heart issues because people have modified their lifestyle habits.
“We need social structure to moderate our behavior. When we were going to the office and we wanted to take a cigarette break, we had to ask our supervisor. But now we can take all the breaks we want and that is why people have gone from smoking half a pack a day to two,” explains Dr. Stewart.
The same scenario is happening with alcoholic beverages and food, both available to people 24 hours a day. “You can have cereal for lunch every day because no one is paying attention,” adds Dr. Stewart.
On the other hand, quarantines, as well as the closing of fitness centers, have made people to adopt an even more inactive lifestyle than before. “Folks are not working out outside because they fear catching the virus,” he says.
In addition, individuals are going less to the doctor for their routine check-ups, also thinking they might get sick, which is why they are stopping treating chronic diseases such as diabetes or hypertension.
As a result of this dynamic, we are seeing more and more increasing levels of obesity, vitamin deficiency, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, liver congestion, and mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, in the population.
“The entire community is affected by the pandemic, not only those who get sick. Social isolation, unemployment, and distance learning, among other factors, increase anxiety levels, which directly impacts the heart because there is more production of certain stress hormones such as cortisol,” explains Dr. Mendoza, also a clinical cardiologist and electrophysiologist.
To start acting against this, the first step is to modify the diet. Experts recommend limiting sugars and processed foods intake as much as possible and increasing proteins and vegetables to reduce the possibility of developing an inflammatory syndrome which can create coronary and vascular disease.
It is also suggested to exercise at least four times a week in 45 minutes sessions, sleep a minimum of seven hours each night and meditate at least 15 minutes a day.
Other recommendations that extend to those who have already suffered from coronavirus include regularly measuring oxygen saturation, monitoring blood pressure and pulse, as well as weight changes.
“I recommend to all COVID-19 positive cases to contact their primary doctor. You may think that your heart is in perfect shape and that your health is controlled when in reality you may have a cardiac problem to address,” says Dr. Mendoza.
In the event of been diagnosed with a cardiac complication, the drug regimen should be continued not only during the course of the coronavirus but even afterwards, as advised by Dr. Mendoza.
Finally, there are red flags to be heeded. “If you are doing your normal activity and you feel as if you have an elephant on your chest in addition to shortness of breath, you should go to the doctor immediately,” warns Dr. Stewart.