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COVID Can Be Hard on the Heart

Coronavirus infections tied to 3 million new cases of cardiovascular disease in U.S.

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Even a mild case of COVID-19 increases your risk of developing cardiovascular complications within the first month to a year after infection, according to an analysis of federal health records collected during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.

These complications — including disruptive heart rhythms, inflammation of the heart, blood clots, stroke, coronary artery disease, heart attack, heart failure and even death — can occur among previously healthy individuals who have had mild COVID-19 infections. The risks, however, do increase for adults with severe COVID-19 who were hospitalized or needed intensive care, say researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System.

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“What we’re seeing isn’t good. COVID-19 can lead to serious cardiovascular complications and death. The heart does not regenerate or easily mend after heart damage. These are diseases that will affect people for a lifetime,” Ziyad Al-Aly, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Washington University, said in a statement.

What the study found

Appearing in the journal Nature Medicine, the study was based on an analysis of health records maintained by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The database included 153,760 adults infected by the coronavirus between March 1, 2020, and Jan. 15, 2021, before vaccines were readily available and prior to outbreaks of the delta and omicron variants. The infected adults, mostly older white men, were compared with two control groups of uninfected VA patients — about 5.6 million treated during the same time frame and about 5.8 million treated pre-pandemic (March 2018 through January 2019).

The researchers analyzed heart health over a yearlong period for all the study subjects. Compared to the control groups, those who tested positive for the coronavirus were found to be:​

  • 72 percent more likely to suffer from coronary artery disease
  • 63 percent more likely to have a heart attack​
  • 52 percent more likely to experience a stroke

“For anyone who has had an infection, it is essential that heart health be an integral part of post-acute COVID care,” Al-Aly advised.

Overall, the researchers determined that heart disease — including heart failure and death — occurred in 4 percent more infected people than uninfected people over a yearlong period.

“Some people may think 4 percent is a small number, but it’s not, given the magnitude of the pandemic,” Al-Aly said. “That translates to roughly 3 million people in the U.S. who have suffered cardiovascular complications due to COVID-19.”

Cardiovascular disease is already the leading cause of death in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 out of every 4 U.S. deaths each year is from heart disease.

No one is immune

The study suggests that COVID-19 not only amplifies the chance of developing heart complications for at-risk individuals (those with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity or diabetes, along with smokers) but increases the risk for anyone infected by the virus.

“Our data showed an increased risk of heart damage for young people and old people; males and females; Blacks, whites and all races; people with obesity and people without; people with diabetes and those without; people with prior heart disease and no prior heart disease; people with mild COVID infections and those with more severe COVID who needed to be hospitalized for it,” Al-Aly said.

Peter Urban is a contributing writer and editor who focuses on health news. Urban spent two decades working as a correspondent in Washington, D.C., for daily newspapers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Ohio, California and Arkansas, including a stint as Washington bureau chief for the Las Vegas Review Journal. His freelance work has appeared in Scientific American, Bloomberg Government, and

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