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Researchers say people who test positive for COVID-19 can have heart health issues for up to a year.
Juan Moyano/Stocksy United
  • In a study of veterans, researchers report that heart health issues can continue to linger in people up to a year after they’ve recovered from COVID-19.
  • They say the issues crop up even among younger people, as well as people who only had mild cases.
  • Experts say COVID-19 can damage the heart in a number of ways.
  • They urge anyone who has recovered from COVID-19 to get screened for cardiovascular issues.

For many people with COVID-19 — even people who didn’t get sick enough to require hospitalization — cardiovascular problems can linger long after the coronavirus has been vanquished from their bodies.

A new study involving people with COVID-19 treated in U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals found a wide variety of cardiac health conditions that persisted for up to a year after infection.

“Individuals with COVID-19 are at increased risk of incident cardiovascular disease spanning several categories, including cerebrovascular disorders, dysrhythmias, ischemic and nonischemic heart disease, pericarditis, myocarditis, heart failure, and thromboembolic disease,” the study authors wrote.

“These risks and burdens were evident even among individuals who were not hospitalized during the acute phase of the infection and increased in a graded fashion according to the care setting during the acute phase [nonhospitalized, hospitalized, and admitted to intensive care].”

The researchers called the risk and prevalence of cardiovascular illness among COVID-19 survivors “substantial.”

They added the pandemic is likely to increase the rate of cardiovascular diseases worldwide and have “long-lasting consequences for patients and health systems and also have broad implications on economic productivity and life expectancy.”

Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, a study co-author and director of the Clinical Epidemiology Center and the chief of research and education service at Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System, told Healthline that the research showed that about 4 percent of all COVID-19 patients could expect to develop serious heart complications.

“While this figure may seem small to some people, multiply that by the millions of people with COVID-19 in the U.S. and globally, and it becomes clear that this is a significant problem,” Al-Aly said. “COVID-19 is now a cardiovascular risk factor, and patients with COVID-19 should be cared for with that idea in mind.”

Dr. Thomas Gut, D.O., associate chair of the department of medicine at Staten Island University Hospital in New York, told Healthline that COVID-19 can wreak havoc on the heart in multiple ways.

“Multiple mechanisms ranging from inflammatory damage to the muscle, blood flow-related damage, and even stress-related heart muscle strain can lead to long-term worsening of existing heart disease or even new structural disease that may not be reversible,” Gut said.

“Generally, people with previous heart disease or advanced age are at highest risk for long-term heart complications, but even milder cases can lead to rhythm or muscle abnormalities,” he said.

Gut said that people who notice new chest pain or worsening shortness of breath when exerting themselves after recovering from COVID-19 should talk with their doctor about these symptoms because they may indicate that ongoing heart damage is occurring.

“If you’ve ever had COVID-19, you need to be screened for arrhythmia and heart disease,” said Dr. Nassir F. Marrouche, a professor in the division of cardiovascular medicine in the department of internal medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Marrouche noted that the veteran population examined in the study tended to be older and have more preexisting conditions than the general population.

Nonetheless, he told Healthline, the study findings were “stunning,” including large increases in the risk of stroke, heart attack, and irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia).

Preliminary findings from studies being conducted at Tulane have similarly found increases in the risk of atrial fibrillation (AFib) and overall mortality among COVID-19 patients 6 months after infection, Marrouche said.

This included healthy, younger people.

Tulane researchers reported, for example, that about half of the people with COVID-19 who were studied experienced extra heartbeats. About 60 percent had elevated heart rates.

Sleep problems are also common, possibly because of COVID-19’s disruptive effect on the autonomic nervous system, which also may be the root cause of arrhythmia among COVID-19 patients.

Studies like these are still mostly focusing on people who had the earlier, deadlier variants of COVID-19, Marrouche said.

It remains to be seen if cases involving the milder Omicron variant — which seems less likely to infiltrate the lungs and the heart — causes similar long-term cardiovascular problems.

“Anyone who had COVID-19 needs to be careful, for at least the first year post-infection,” said Marrouche.

He noted that heart damage can occur without noticeable symptoms, particularly among young and otherwise healthy patients.