A Link Between COVID-19 and Heart Failure? Cone Health Cardiologists Weigh In
Two cardiologists discuss the ways COVID-19 affects the heart and offer tips for knowing when to seek help.
Greensboro – As researchers continue to analyze the long-term effect of COVID-19, one trend is becoming more evident with time: the coronavirus is affecting heart health across the nation.
A recent study of 11 million U.S. veterans’ health records found the risk of 20 heart and vascular issues had substantially increased in those who had COVID-19 a year earlier, compared to those who did not. The study also found that the veterans who had COVID-19 had a 72% higher risk of developing heart failure than those who never tested positive.
Heart failure occurs when a person’s heart can no longer pump enough blood and oxygen to support their organs, or the heart muscle has stiffened, making it difficult for the heart to fill with blood. It’s a condition impacting around 6.2 million adults in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It is unclear why this apparent link between COVID-19 and heart failure exists. One explanation could be the virus’ known link to myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 patients are almost 16 times more likely to develop myocarditis.
“If that inflammation gets severe enough, a person could sustain heart damage from that, and it could be a life-long problem,” said Dr. Gayatri Acharya, a cardiologist at The Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital. “Not every patient comes in with this. It’s infrequent, but it can lead to heart failure.”
Cone Health cardiologist Dr. Heather Pemberton has noticed the trend as well – especially in patients who have had severe cases of COVID-19. She recalls working with one COVID-19 patient whose heart was only able to pump at about 25 percent of its normal function. After the patient recovered from the virus, their heart’s pumping function climbed to around 55 percent, in the normal range.
This case and others point to COVID-19’s impact on the heart. However, Pemberton says, it can be difficult to determine when a person’s long-term symptoms are simply the remnants of the virus or signs of heart failure.
“It’s tough because the symptoms of COVID-19 itself and the prolonged symptoms you have afterward – fatigue, shortness of breath – kind of mimic what heart failure symptoms are,” Pemberton said. “But if you’re starting to swell or gain weight or having abdominal fullness, then that’s something that needs to be looked into further.”
Acharya and Pemberton recommend paying close attention to your health and not ignoring your symptoms. They say taking proactive steps to take care of your heart will greatly increase your chance of a positive outcome.
“Getting in and getting checked out is so important,” Acharya said. “I think people feel hesitant to see a cardiologist because they feel like that means there’s something wrong. But let’s catch it before it gets to that point.”
Learn more about the advanced cardiovascular services available at the Cone Health Heart and Vascular Center here.