Middle Age Woman

COVID-19 is the respiratory virus that has affected the health and lives of people all over the world. But what does COVID-19 have to do with heart health? Saul Silver, MD, is a cardiologist at the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute who provides care in Shadyside and in the South Hills at the new UPMC Outpatient Center on Clairton Boulevard, just off Route 51 in West Mifflin. He discusses the effects of COVID-19 on patients who have heart disease.

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What Is Heart Disease?

Coronary artery disease (CAD) develops when major blood vessels that supply your heart become damaged. This happens when cholesterol-containing deposits, or plaques, build up in the arteries of the heart and slow down blood supply. CAD can lead to serious issues such as:

  • Abnormal heart rhythm
  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure (occurs when the heart can’t pump blood adequately to vital organs)
  • Stroke

Plaque build-up makes arteries vulnerable to tears or damage, resulting in blood clots. Heart attacks occur when these blood clots stop blood from flowing to the heart. “We all have micro tears in our arteries at one time or another, but typically, the body can heal them on its own. It’s only when a tear occurs and a blood clot develops and stops blood flow in the artery that a heart attack happens,” explains Dr. Silver.

How Does COVID-19 Affect Patients With Heart Disease?

A relatively high percentage of patients admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 will have underlying coronary artery disease. COVID-19 directly and indirectly affects the cardiovascular system and can cause patients to develop weaker hearts.

Additionally, patients who have some type of heart disease have a higher risk of developing a serious or life-threatening case of COVID-19 than patients who don’t have pre-existing conditions. Hypertension, obesity, and diabetes are especially significant risks in COVID-19 progression. “About 10% of patients with pre-existing heart disease who contract COVID-19 will die, compared with only 1% of patients who are otherwise healthy,” says Dr. Silver.

Heart attacks, or myocardial infarctions, also occur in patients with COVID-19. However, hospitalizations for acute heart attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic have decreased by as much as 40 to 50%. “This is not because heart attacks have suddenly stopped happening,” notes Dr. Silver. “It’s because people are afraid of contracting COVID-19 if they go to a hospital for treatment. It’s important not to put off care. If you feel you’re having a heart attack, go to the hospital. UPMC hospitals are safe, clean, and secure.”

What Steps Can I Take to Reduce My Risk of CAD?

Lowering your risk of developing CAD decreases the chance of you developing a life-threatening case of COVID-19. Though there are some factors tied to the development of CAD that you cannot change, including your age, sex, and genetics, Dr. Silver says there are ways to take charge of your heart health today.

Here are steps you can take to prevent CAD:

  • Quit smoking. Individuals with a history of smoking are much more likely to develop heart problems than nonsmokers.
  • Lower blood pressure. Tears in arteries can occur because of high blood pressure. Controlling your blood pressure is incredibly important in reducing damage to arteries. Current medical standards define a healthy blood pressure as less than 120/80.
  • Control cholesterol. One of the most important advances doctors have made in the prevention of heart disease is the development of statins, or cholesterol-lowering medicines. If you have any type of coronary disease, you should talk to your doctor about taking a statin.
  • Manage diabetes. Diabetes is a major risk factor for the development of CAD or potentially dying from a COVID-19 infection. If you’re diabetic, you need to be extra careful about your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. As your weight goes up, so does your blood pressure, cholesterol, and risk of cardiovascular disease. Try to maintain a body mass index, or BMI, of 25 to 26.
  • Stay physically active. Even a small amount of physical exercise each day can help you maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels, not to mention weight management — all of which help prevent heart disease. This pandemic should not keep you from getting exercise.
  • Eat a low-fat, low-salt diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and grains. Avoid ice cream and candy high in sugars, as well as very salty snacks like pretzels and potato chips. Eating healthy can also help make you feel better.
  • Reduce and manage stress. Stress affects everyone and is hard to avoid, but taking a moment to sit back, close your eyes, and meditate can lower stress and your risk of CAD.
  • Get treatment for sleep apnea. Sleep apnea occurs when you stop breathing while sleeping. It can lead to leg swelling, shortness of breath, fatigue, pulmonary hypertension, and other health concerns.
  • Limit alcohol use. Alcohol consumption can lead to arrythmias, liver problems, and accidents. Alcohol in moderation is fine, but heavy drinking should be avoided.
  • Manage sugar intake to lower triglycerides. Triglycerides are a type of fat found in your blood. You need some triglycerides for good health. But high levels of triglycerides are linked to a higher risk for CAD and other serious problems, such as pancreatitis. Consider reading nutrition labels and try to decrease the amount of sugar you consume.

To find a specialist or schedule an appointment, visit us online.

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine.