Covid has consumed people’s lives in a way reminiscent of wartime. The state has swelled as a result of the lockdown measures and there is a rush to regain freedoms. While it’s tempting to see Covid as little more than an inconvenience, the evidence suggests it would be wise to take it more seriously.
This is because the effects of the virus can be devastating many months after the initial infection.
A new feature published in the journal Nature summarizes the current evidence on the risk of cardiovascular problems after infection with COVID-19.
The journal article cites a study, published earlier this year, that used records from the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to estimate how often COVID-19 leads to cardiovascular problems.
They found that people who had had the disease faced substantially increased risks of 20 cardiovascular conditions, including potentially catastrophic problems such as heart attacks and strokes, in the year after coronavirus infection.
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Researchers say these complications can occur even in people who appear to have fully recovered from a “mild infection.”
“Doctors have reported cardiovascular problems related to COVID-19 throughout the pandemic, but concerns about this problem increased after the results of the VA study came out earlier this year,” the article states from Nature.
The analysis by Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, an epidemiologist at 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.
Researchers compared more than 150,000 veterans who had recovered from acute COVID-19 to their uninfected peers, as well as to a pre-pandemic control group.
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People who had been admitted to intensive care with acute infections had a dramatically higher risk of cardiovascular problems in the following year.
For some conditions, such as swelling of the heart and blood clots in the lungs, the risk was at least 20-fold compared to uninfected peers.
But even people who had not been hospitalized had an increased risk of many conditions, ranging from an eight percent increase in the rate of heart attacks to a 247 percent increase in the rate of heart inflammation
For Dr. Al-Aly, the study adds to the growing body of evidence that a bout of COVID-19 can permanently alter the health of some people. These types of changes fall under the category of late sequelae of COVID-19, which covers problems that arise after an initial infection.
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This disorder includes—and overlaps with—the persistent illness known as long-term Covid, a term that has many definitions.
“Studies indicate that the coronavirus is associated with a wide range of lasting problems, including diabetes, persistent lung damage and even brain damage,” the Nature article states.
As with these conditions, Dr Al-Aly said cardiovascular problems that occur after a Covid infection can decrease a person’s quality of life in the long term.
There are treatments for these problems, “but they are not curable conditions,” he added.
Despite its large size, the VA study comes with caveats, the researchers say.
The study is observational, meaning it reuses data that was collected for other purposes, a method that can introduce biases.
For example, the study only considered veterans, which means the data is skewed toward white men.
“We don’t really have a study like this that includes a more diverse, younger population,” said Eric Topol, a genomicist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California.
He added that more research is needed before scientists can truly quantify how often cardiovascular problems occur.
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