The study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, is the first comprehensive look at the cardiovascular outcomes that can occur following a COVID-19 diagnosis, regardless of severity.
“Until now we had data that COVID infection could affect the heart in the short term,” Saurabh Rajpal, MBBS, a cardiologist and assistant professor in the Division of Cardiology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Health. Dr. Raipal, who was unaffiliated with the new research points to issues like heart inflammation or blood clots in the acute stage of the disease. “However, this research shows that COVID can have lingering effects on the heart,” he says.
And the effects of COVID-19 on long-term heart health aren’t insignificant. “Consequently, COVID-19 infections have, thus far, contributed to 15 million new cases of heart disease worldwide,” Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, one of the study’s co-authors, and chief of research and development service at the VA Saint Louis Health Care System said in a press release. “This is quite significant. For anyone who has had an infection, it is essential that heart health be an integral part of post-acute COVID care.”
How COVID-19 affects long-term heart health
To investigate the potential long-term cardiovascular effects of having COVID-19, researchers looked at data from national health care databases curated by the US Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). The information was split into three separate groups: people who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 (153,760 individuals), people who did not catch the virus (5,637,647 individuals), and people whose data was collected pre-pandemic (5,859,411 individuals).
Across the board, COVID-19 survivors were at an increased risk for cardiovascular diseases across several categories, including cerebral vascular disorders, dysrhythmia, inflammatory heart disease, ischemic heart disease, thrombotic disorders, and other cardiac disorders. More specifically, being diagnosed with COVID-19 increased a person’s risk of heart attack by 63%, stroke by 52%, and heart failure by 72% in a 12-month period, compared to those without the illness.
The findings did not discriminate against age, race, gender, or pre-existing conditions—according to study authors, even people without a history of cardiovascular disease before a COVID-19 diagnosis were at a higher risk after having the illness. Researchers also found that people were affected despite severity of their COVID-19 infection, and cardiovascular risks were evident even in people who weren’t hospitalized during the acute phase of their illness, which reflects the majority of people who have COVID-19.
Still, researchers say the study has its limitations: In using data from the VA—which was from mainly white men—the demographics of the study weren’t necessarily representative of the US population. It’s also possible that those who were part of the control group actually had COVID-19 but didn’t know or weren’t officially diagnosed with the illness, which could throw off results. And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, new variants and greater vaccine adherence could lead to a change in these cardiovascular issues.