Experts: Study showing increased heart risk after COVID-19 is wake-up call
Dr. Evelina Grayver ran in the Long Island Half Marathon and, most days, keeps up her training by running six miles.
But weeks after she was infected with COVID-19 last year, her heart felt so weak that walking up stairs at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset left her exhausted.
"I could barely walk up a flight of stairs in the hospital without getting shortness of breath," she said. "It was very scary."
Grayver, 42, a cardiologist and director of Women's Heart Health at Northwell, is a victim of "long COVID," a syndrome that leaves people debilitated months after they get infected with the virus.
So when researchers at Washington University in St. Louis came out with a study last week showing that even young and healthy people who get COVID-19 can suffer long-term cardiovascular problems, it hit home for Grayver.
What to know
- A new study by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis shows that even young and healthy people who get COVID-19 can suffer long-term cardiovascular problems.
- A cardiologist at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset who ran the Long Island Half Marathon said that weeks after she got COVID-19 she could barely make it up a flight of stairs.
- The study is a wake-up call for people who think getting infected with the virus cannot lead to long-term health problem, a Stony Brook University cardiologist said.
"I think that it is incredibly accurate," Grayver said of the study. "It really, really hit home, because it hit me professionally, it hit me personally."
She is seeing the trend in her own practice, where she estimated about a quarter of her patients developed heart problems after getting COVID-19.
Dr. Hal Skopicki, chief of cardiology and co-director of the Stony Brook Heart Institute, called the study a wake-up call and "rallying cry" that even younger people without major preexisting health problems should try to avoid getting COVID-19 because they can suffer long-term heart issues after getting infected.
The study, he said, "is profound," because many people think they can get infected with COVID-19 and suffer few long-term consequences. "Everybody may be at risk for cardiovascular complications over time," after getting the virus, he said.
"This is not the flu," he added.
The researchers found that even a mild case of COVID-19 can increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular problems for at least a year after diagnosis, according to Nature magazine, which first published the study.
They found that heart failure and strokes were substantially higher in people who had recovered from COVID-19 than in people of similar medical backgrounds who were not infected.
The risk was elevated even for those who were under 65 years of age and lacked risk factors, such as obesity or diabetes, the researchers found.
"Governments and health systems around the world should be prepared to deal with the likely significant contribution of the COVID-19 pandemic to a rise in the burden of cardiovascular diseases," Ziyad Al-Aly, the study's co-author and the chief of research and development for the Veterans Affairs (VA) St. Louis Health Care System, told the journal.
Skopicki said that "we’ve been telling everybody without preexisting diseases or who are young that they’re the ones not really going to be affected and that the vast majority of people who are going to be hospitalized or faced with a chance of dying, that they’re the ones with preexisting conditions. They’re the people who are over the age of 65."
The new research indicates "that’s not true."
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Source: New York State Department of Health
The study was based on a database from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The researchers looked at the cases of 150,000 veterans who survived for at least 30 days after contracting COVID-19. They compared them to two other groups of uninfected people: five million people who used the VA medical system during the pandemic, and a similarly sized group that used the system in 2017, before COVID-19 hit.
One cardiologist interviewed in the Nature journal noted that the study did have limitations.
Hossein Ardehali, a cardiologist at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois said people in the group monitored during the pandemic weren’t tested for COVID-19 so some may have had mild infections. In addition the authors only dealt with patients of VA hospitals, which are predominantly white males, he said.
Dr. Avni Thakore, a cardiologist who is president of Catholic Health Physician Partners based in Greenvale, also said she was not surprised "they found some long-term increased cardiovascular risk" among people who had COVID-19.
"What we all know about COVID at this point is that it causes a significant inflammatory response when you have it and sometimes that inflammatory response has some long-lasting effects," she said.
Grayver, who was fully vaccinated in January 2021 and first got infected with COVID-19 a month later in a breakthrough case, said she believes the potential impacts go beyond strokes and heart failure to include abnormalities such as arrhythmias. Besides a weakening of one wall of the heart, she herself suffered a syndrome that caused her heart rate and blood pressure to soar or plummet.
It took her months of pushing herself hard to regain her cardiovascular conditioning, she said.
"It took more work than I’ve ever had to put into my sort of training and getting myself back into that cardiovascular shape," she said.
Luckily, she is now back in top shape, she said. She was infected with the virus a second time this past Christmas season, but suffered a more mild case.
She warned people to see a doctor if their COVID-19 symptoms last more than a few weeks.
Skopicki said he is not an "alarmist" and "I don’t believe everybody should be walking around, saying, ‘I had COVID, oh my God, am I going to die of a heart attack?’"
But "this is a rallying cry. This is for those people who are saying, ‘I’m not afraid to get infected’ " because they think it can't impact their health long-term.
Thakore and Grayver both said that, with proper medical treatment, hopefully most people will make full recoveries, but medical experts are still learning about COVID-19 and its long-term impacts.
COVID-19 continued a general downward trend on Long Island in test results on Monday, as the omicron surge appears to be heading toward a low point barring another spike.
Long Island registered 335 new confirmed cases in test results from Sunday, while the region saw its seven-day average for positivity fall to 3.43%.
Across the state, 48 people died on Sunday of causes linked to COVID-19. The fatalities included two in Nassau County.
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