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Studies show that COVID-19 may cause lasting effects to the heart, even in people who were not hospitalized.
The heart changes seemed to affect otherwise healthy people.
Providence cardiologist Tyler Gluckman, M.D., weighs in on what the findings mean.
At the beginning of the pandemic, much of the focus around coronavirus (COVID-19) was on the lungs. But research is starting to reveal that the virus may have lingering effects on other major organs.
Two studies — both based out of Germany and published in JAMA Cardiology — reported that patients with COVID-19 showed evidence of heart involvement. One study found heart changes in three-quarters of the COVID-19 patients they tested, including those who were otherwise healthy.
While more research is needed, scientists are starting to dig deeper into the long-term impact of COVID-19 on the body. Read on to learn more about these new studies and what you should know if you're recovering from COVID-19.
What the studies say
One study examined the hearts of 100 patients who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and recovered between April and June 2020. The scientists compared the data to 100 patients who didn't have COVID-19. The median age for the study's participants was 49.
After undergoing a cardiac MRI (which creates a detailed picture of the heart), 78% of the COVID-19 patients showed they had structural changes to their heart and 60% had heart inflammation (myocardial inflammation).
In addition to the structural changes, 76 patients' blood tested positive for cardiac biomarkers. These biomarkers show that the heart was under stress at some point.
What's important to note is that these heart changes appeared in patients regardless of whether they were hospitalized for COVID-19. Many of the patients affected by the heart abnormalities were otherwise healthy and didn't have underlying health conditions.
Another study looked at autopsies of 39 people who died of COVID-19 in early April (the median age was 85). Researchers found that 61% of the patients had evidence of COVID-19 in their heart tissue. However, researchers also agreed that more studies are needed to determine whether the presence of COVID-19 in the heart has any long-term consequences.
Should I be concerned?
While these two studies indicate that there may be some heart side effects from COVID-19, more research is needed to understand the near-term and long-term side effects of the virus. Both of these studies were very small — fewer than 150 people were examined between the two studies. The research also didn't determine whether the cardiac side effects were temporary or permanent.
“What these studies show is that the heart can be affected by the virus, but the near-term or long-term consequences of that are unknown, particularly in people who are asymptomatic,” says Tyler Gluckman, MD, FACC, a cardiologist at Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic is Portland, OR. “We need science and time to better understand what the prevalence of this is and what the overall impact will be.”
Regardless, this research emphasizes that there's still a lot to learn about the long-term side effects of COVID-19. As we continue to learn more, protecting yourself and your loved ones from the virus is the first step in preventing any possible complications or future health problems.
It’s also critical to seek care if you’re not feeling well, and don’t delay care if you’re experiencing symptoms of a heart attack or stroke. Hospitals, clinics and healthcare providers are taking important steps to keep you safe when you need care.
“If you have any signs or symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, call 911 — hospitals are safe places,” Dr. Gluckman says.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.
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