Covid has consumed people’s lives in a way reminiscent of wartime. With the state bloated due to lockdown measures, people are eager to return to freedom. While it’s easy to dismiss Covid as an inconvenience, evidence suggests it’s prudent to take it more seriously.
That’s because the effects of the virus can be devastating months after the initial infection.
A new feature published in the journal Nature summarizes the current evidence on the risk of cardiovascular problems following COVID-19 infection.
The journal article cites a study published earlier this year that used records from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to estimate the frequency of cardiovascular problems caused by COVID-19.
They found that people with the disease faced a significantly increased risk of 20 cardiovascular diseases within a year of contracting the coronavirus, including potentially catastrophic problems such as heart attack and stroke.
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These complications may even occur in people who appear to have fully recovered from a “mild infection,” the researchers said.
“Throughout the pandemic, physicians have reported cardiovascular problems associated with COVID-19, but concerns about the problem surged after the results of the VA study were published earlier this year,” the Nature article states.
The analysis by epidemiologist Ziyad Al-Aly, PhD, of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and colleagues is one of the most extensive efforts to characterize 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 to their uninfected peers and a pre-pandemic control group.
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People admitted to intensive care with an acute infection had a significantly increased risk of cardiovascular disease in the following year.
For some conditions, such as a swollen heart and blood clots in the lungs, the risk is at least 20 times higher than in uninfected peers.
But even those who were not hospitalized had an increased risk of many diseases, from an 8 percent increase in heart attack rates to a 247 percent increase in heart inflammation rates.
For Dr. Al-Aly, the study adds to a growing body of evidence that a bout of COVID-19 can permanently alter the health of some people. These changes fall under the category of acute sequelae of COVID-19, which covers problems that arise after initial infection.
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The disease includes – and overlaps with – the persistent disease known as long-term Covid, a term that has many definitions.
“Studies show that coronaviruses are associated with a wide range of persistent problems, such as diabetes, persistent lung damage and even brain damage,” the Nature article states.
As with these cases, Dr. Al-Aly said cardiovascular problems that develop after a Covid infection can reduce a person’s quality of life in the long run.
Treatments do exist for these problems, he added, “but they are not curable conditions.”
Despite its size, the VA study did have some caveats, the researchers said.
The study was observational, meaning it reused data collected for other purposes—an approach that could introduce bias.
For example, the study only considered veterans, which means the data is skewed towards white males.
“We don’t really have any studies like this that look at a more diverse and younger population,” said Eric Topol, a genomics scientist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.
He added that more research is needed before scientists can truly quantify how often cardiovascular problems occur.