COVID-19 could take a massive toll on the health of hearts across the world. New research has warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could cause a wave of cardiovascular problems in the coming years. Not only are the researchers concerned with how the virus impacts the heart, but also how the lockdown might have affected peoples’ wider health.
Cardiovascular disease killed nearly 18.6 million people globally in 2019, a rate that has risen by over 17 percent from the decade previous. While this trend is set to continue regardless of the pandemic, researchers suspect that COVID-19 is likely to make things even worse. The new study, published today in the American Heart Association's flagship journal Circulation, predicts the global burden of cardiovascular disease will grow exponentially over the next few years as a direct and indirect consequence of COVID-19.
As previous research has shown, COVID-19 doesn’t just affect the lungs, but also the kidneys, the gut, the brain, the skin, and the heart. A significant number of COVID-19 patients experience damage to their hearts, with some studies suggesting up to half of hospitalized COVID-19 patients who undergo a heart scan show signs of abnormalities in heart function. It’s not totally clear how the virus affects the heart, but it’s well-established that a viral infection can cause significant inflammation which can injure the heart. It’s also well-established that COVID-19 is associated with blood clots in some people.
But the infection itself is only part of the story. The researchers were also concerned that many people have or will delay care or diagnosis of cardiovascular conditions as they want to avoid hospitals or healthcare systems overwhelmed due to a flood of COVID-19 cases.
"COVID-19 has taken a huge toll on human life worldwide and is on track to become one of the top three to five causes of death in 2020. But its influence will, directly and indirectly, impact rates of cardiovascular disease prevalence and deaths for years to come," Dr Salim S. Virani, chair of the writing committee for the 2021 Statistical Update and associate professor in cardiology and cardiovascular research at Baylor College of Medicine, said in a statement.
"Importantly, we also know people have delayed getting care for heart attacks and strokes, which can result in poorer outcomes."
On top of this, the social distancing measures and lockdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have profoundly changed the way many of us live. Generally speaking, people are drinking more, exercising less, under more stress, and are more susceptible to mental health challenges — none of which bodes well for a happy heart.
"The extraordinary circumstances of dealing with COVID-19 have changed the way we live, including adopting unhealthy behaviors that are known to increase the risk of heart disease and stroke," explained Dr Virani. "Unhealthy eating habits, increased consumption of alcohol, lack of physical activity and the mental toll of quarantine isolation and even fear of contracting the virus all can adversely impact a person's risk for cardiovascular health."
This isn't the only long-term global health problem that experts are concerned about. Earlier this month, a team of scientists also speculate that the COVID-19 pandemic could bring a surge of cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s diseases in years to come.