Does COVID-19 Cause Heart Damage?
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COVID-19 is primarily thought to be a respiratory disease. Global health experts have warned citizens to cover their mouths and watch out for symptoms like a dry cough and shortness of breath. Efforts to combat the disease and administer treatment have focused largely on securing ventilators and enforcing good respiratory hygiene. New data has emerged, however, that suggests COVID-19’s impact may go beyond the lungs. As they continue to combat the virus, doctors and other medical professionals are also facing what Scientific American calls “a new medical mystery.”
Troubling New Data
Data from China, Italy, and parts of the United States is now leading some cardiac experts to believe that COVID-19 can infect the heart. A recent study found that 20% of COVID-19 patients exhibited heart damage. Even many patients who showed no respiratory symptoms have died as a result of heart failure.
Patients who showed heart damage were significantly more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who did not. More than half of patients with heart damage died, compared to 4.5% of patients without it.
These findings could add an entirely new dimension to the fight against COVID-19, as well as individual efforts to recover from it. People with pre-existing heart conditions may need to take extra precautions, hospitals may see a surge in demand for new equipment, and treatment plans may change dramatically.
It is still unclear whether heart damage is caused by COVID-19 or if it is merely a by-product of the body’s reaction to the virus. Scientific American’s Markian Hawryluk calls this one of the “critical unknowns” of COVID-19 response efforts. The question is so difficult to answer, in part, “because severe illness alone can influence heart health.” Patients dying from pneumonia, for example, often succumb because of heart failure.
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Major respiratory conditions can have a domino effect when it comes to heart health. When inflammation spreads throughout the body, it can lead to plaque in the arteries becoming unstable. This, in turn, can cause a heart attack.
Dr. Robert Bonow, a professor of cardiology at Northwestern University, suggests that the damage seen in COVID-19 patients could be something else entirely. It’s possible the virus is infecting receptors in the heart and directly causing damage. He notes that the same lung receptors that COVID-19 attaches itself to are also found in the heart.
The severity of the COVID-19 crisis complicates efforts to study the virus’ potential effect on the heart. Under normal circumstances, doctors would perform biopsies on COVID-19 patients to determine where infection has spread. Patients are often so sick, however, that invasive testing is impossible. Performing additional tests could also mean placing doctors and healthcare professionals at even greater risk of infection.
Cardiologists across the northeastern United States are doing everything they can to collect and compile data. “We all recognize,” said Columbia University’s Dr. Sahil Parikh, “that because we’re on the leading edge of this, for better or worse, we need to compile information and use it to help advance the field.” Parikh and his colleagues recently published their findings on COVID-19 and cardiac complications online. Their work has already led hospitals to update their protocol for treating both COVID-19 and suspected heart attacks.
The COVID-19 outbreak remains a developing story. Do your part by practicing social distancing and adhering to state and local stay-at-home orders. Check in with Senior Life Advisor throughout the coming weeks for more updates.