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  • People who recovered from COVID-19 have a higher risk of stroke, heart attack and other cardiovascular problems even months later.
  • Heart disease is currently the leading cause of death in the United States.
  • More than 44 million Americans — and more than 237 million people worldwide — have survived COVID-19.

People who survived COVID-19 have a higher risk of stroke, heart attack, heart failure, and other cardiovascular problems months after their initial infection, according to a new preprint of a study released October 5.

This higher risk applies not just to people who had severe COVID-19 but also to those who were not sick enough to require hospitalization.

Heart disease is already the leading cause of death in the United States.

More than 43 million Americans — and more than 234 million people worldwide — have survived COVID-19. This could lead to an increased burden of heart-related diseases over the next few years.

“Care strategies of people who survived the acute episode of COVID-19 should include attention to cardiovascular health and disease,” the authors of the new study wrote.

The study has yet to be peer-reviewed, but it joins previously published research that looked at heart damage in people with COVID-19. Most of those studies focused on hospitalized patients.

The new study also included people with COVID-19 who were treated as outpatients. In addition, researchers followed veterans for a longer time after their initial infection — 8 months to a little over a year.

To determine the extent of COVID-19-related heart effects, researchers examined the electronic health records of over 151,000 U.S. veterans who had survived the first 30 days of their illness.

This included people who had been hospitalized for COVID-19, admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU), or seen as an outpatient.

Researchers compared these patients to two similar groups of veterans who did not have COVID-19.

Most of the patients were white and male, which may limit how well the results apply to other groups, the authors wrote.

Researchers found that people who survived COVID-19 had a higher risk of cardiovascular problems even months later, compared to the group without COVID-19.

This included a 48 percent higher risk of stroke, a 79 percent higher risk of atrial fibrillation (AFib), a 61 percent higher risk of heart attack, and a 73 percent higher risk of heart failure.

These risks were higher for people who had more severe COVID-19. But even people who were seen as outpatients were at higher risk of heart and related problems.

People admitted to the ICU had an almost 6-fold higher risk of any cardiovascular condition compared to people who didn’t have COVID-19.

For patients hospitalized but not admitted to the ICU, the overall risk was around 3-fold higher. Non-hospitalized patients had a 1.4-fold higher risk.

In this study, “we provide evidence that beyond the first 30 days of infection, people with COVID-19 exhibited increased risks and 12-month burdens of incident cardiovascular disease,” the authors wrote.

As an observational study, researchers can’t say that COVID-19 directly caused the higher cardiovascular risk.

But other research has found a similar link between COVID-19 and heart problems.

“It’s from a reputable team who previously published similar research showing that COVID-19 leaves people with wide-ranging chronic health problems, and does this to a greater degree and more often than seasonal influenza,” wrote Zoë Hyde, PhD, an epidemiologist at The University of Western Australia, on Twitter.

Scientists are still trying to determine why people who’ve had COVID-19 have a higher risk of heart and related problems, even months after their initial infection.

Possible mechanisms include lingering damage caused when the coronavirus infects cells in the heart. Or an ongoing excessive immune response after coronavirus infection that causes additional damage in the body.

The authors of the study point out that indirect factors may also play a role, like the impact of stay-at-home orders, job loss, changes in eating habits or physical activity levels during the pandemic, or death of a family member.

Social, economic, and other stressors “experienced by people with COVID-19 may also shape their cardiovascular outcomes,” researchers wrote.