- Health officials report that deaths related to heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure have all increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Experts say a major reason may be that people delayed their regular medical checkups.
- They say now is a good time to schedule physical exams and diagnostic tests.
- They add that focusing on eating habits and daily exercise routines is also a good idea.
As COVID-19 pandemic restrictions are fading in the United States, people are returning to restaurants, movie theaters, and sporting events.
Experts note there is another place in particular people may not have visited in more than a year where they should return as soon as possible.
The doctor’s office.
A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that in the past year, deaths from both diabetes and heart disease have increased noticeably.
Specifically, heart disease-linked deaths rose by 32,000 over the previous year, a 3-percent jump, and only the second time in 20 years the rate has gone up.
Diabetes-related deaths increased by 13,000, or 14 percent. Deaths related to high blood pressure also ticked up 12 percent.
“I’m not surprised,” said Dr. Salim Virani, FACC, FAHA, FASPC, chair of the writing committee for the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association 2021 Statistical Update and an associate professor in cardiology and cardiovascular research sections at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas.
“Almost 40 percent of U.S. adults deferred care (in that time),” he told Healthline, adding that 12 percent of people who needed emergency care deferred as well.
In other words, Virani said, “Patients who actually need more care were deferring that care.”
Now, experts agree, is a good time to schedule a medical checkup to see where you are after a year of staying at home.
The first step in tackling this issue, according to Dr. Ping H. Wang, a professor and chair of the Department of Diabetes, Endocrinology & Metabolism at City of Hope in California, is realizing this: There actually is no blame.
“I don’t think this is anybody’s fault,” Wang told Healthline. “This is the biggest pandemic in [modern] human history. We all did the best we could.”
That’s why, he said, it’s not fair to blame people who deferred care or blame the medical community for advising people to stay home and be safe.
Even for those with comorbidities that usually require frequent medical visits, the message during lockdown seemed clear: Don’t venture out if you don’t have to.
That, Wang said, could have dissuaded many.
So, too, could the setup in clinics and hospitals at the time. Most people could not bring another person in with them, something that created a challenge for older as well as less independent individuals.
“People just didn’t feel comfortable,” he said.
Virani pointed out that early in the pandemic, emergency room visits dropped by more than 25 percent, something that foreshadowed these numbers.
“It’s not like during a pandemic there is less heart disease,” he said.
Virani also saw other signs.
Fitbit reported that in the first months of lockdown, even usually physically active people saw their activity levels decrease.
At the same time, he said, eating habits took a hit. In his research, Virani found that almost 40 percent of people reported a weight gain during the pandemic.
At the same time, he said, issues relating to mental health — something that can impact both heart health and diabetes — increased dramatically.
There were also issues related to limited access to medical staff and the financial impact of the pandemic.
With COVID-19 restrictions easing in most of the United States, experts say this is a good time to get back on track with your health.
The place to start, Virani said, is seeing your primary care physician.
“They are the person you should have a long-term relationship with,” he said.
Reaching out now to set an appointment — even if you have to wait for it — is the right move, he said.
He added that we have yet to learn just how long-term the elevated death rates from the pandemic will last.
“We have every reason to suspect that, unfortunately, [in] the next few years to come, we will continue to see this,” he said.
Going forward, Virani suggests focusing on a healthy daily diet, a regular exercise routine, and getting vaccinated against COVID-19 as well as other illnesses.
Among other things, he said, there’s some evidence that vaccines can help with inflammation, a component of heart disease and other ailments.
What can we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic should we face something like this again?
Wang said the medical community probably needs to adapt its messaging and availability going forward.
“How can we make resources available and accessible to those who need them (in another lockdown?),” Wang asked. “I don’t have an easy answer here,” he said. “But our community needs to address it.”