Covid: COVID-19 can raise heart attack risk in the year after infection

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Covid has consumed people’s lives in a way that’s reminiscent of wartime. The state has become bloated as a result of lockdown measures and there is an eagerness to get freedoms back. While it’s tempting to view Covid as nothing more than an inconvenience, evidence suggests it would be prudent to take it more seriously.

That’s because the effects of the virus can be devastating many months after the initial infection.

A new feature published in the journal Nature summarises the current evidence on the risk of cardiovascular problems following a COVID-19 infection.

The journal article cites one study, published earlier this year, which used records from the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to estimate how often COVID-19 leads to cardiovascular problems.

They found that people who had had the disease faced substantially increased risks for 20 cardiovascular conditions — including potentially catastrophic problems such as heart attacks and strokes — in the year after infection with coronavirus.

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Researchers say that these complications can happen even in people who seem to have completely recovered from a “mild infection”.

“Doctors have reported cardiovascular problems related to COVID-19 throughout the pandemic, but concerns over this issue surged after the results of the VA study came out earlier this year,” the Nature article states.

The analysis by Doctor Ziyad Al-Aly, an epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and his colleagues is one of the most extensive efforts to characterise what happens to the heart and circulatory system after the acute phase of COVID-19.

The researchers compared more than 150,000 veterans who had recovered from acute COVID-19 with their uninfected peers, as well as with a pre-pandemic control group.

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People who had been admitted to intensive care with acute infections had a drastically higher risk of cardiovascular problems during the next year.

For some conditions, such as swelling of the heart and blood clots in the lungs, the risk shot up at least 20-fold compared with that in uninfected peers.

But even people who had not been hospitalised had increased risks of many conditions, ranging from an eight percent increase in the rate of heart attacks to a 247 percent increase in the rate of heart inflammation.

For Doctor Al-Aly, the study added to the growing body of evidence that a bout of COVID-19 can permanently alter some people’s health. These kinds of change fall under the category of post-acute sequelae of COVID-19, which covers problems that emerge after an initial infection. 

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This disorder includes — and overlaps with — the persistent condition known as long Covid, a term that has many definitions.

“Studies indicate that the coronavirus is associated with a wide range of lasting problems, such as diabetes, persistent lung damage and even brain damage,” the Nature article states.

As with these conditions, Doctor Al-Aly said that the cardiovascular issues that occur after a Covid infection can decrease a person’s quality of life over the long term.

Treatments do exist for these problems, “but they are not curable conditions”, he added.

Despite its large size, the VA study does come with caveats, say researchers.

The study is observational, meaning that it reuses data that were collected for other purposes — a method that can introduce biases.

For example, the study considers only veterans, meaning that the data are skewed towards white men.

“We don’t really have any study like it that goes into more diverse and a younger population,” said Eric Topol, a genomicist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California.

He added that more research is needed before scientists can truly quantify the frequency at which cardiovascular problems strike.

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