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How Exactly Does COVID Mess With Your Heart?

As a new study shows, COVID can damage your heart in multiple terrifying ways

We’ve learned enough about COVID-19 to where I feel slightly more confident that I personally would not die from it. Well, at least not from the initial illness — “long COVID” and the damage the virus does to your heart could possibly present problems that I’d have to face later in life. There’s been a lot of talk about the fact that COVID can impact your heart, but what exactly is going on? 

A recent ultrasound study gives us some idea, but it isn’t pretty. As research from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in late October, found, 62 percent of COVID-19 patients involved in the study had evidence of cardiac injury. This doesn’t, of course, mean that 62 percent of all people with COVID-19 experience cardiac damage, but further details of the data are still frightening. 

The study involved 305 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, with a median age of 63. Sixty-seven percent of participants were men. Among them, 190 had evidence of myocardial injury as shown on an ultrasound. While 118 already had heart damage prior to being hospitalized (and likely before contracting COVID), 72 developed it while hospitalized. 

Per a press release from Mount Sinai, “abnormalities were diverse, with some patients exhibiting multiple abnormalities” in different regions of the heart, many of which can lead to heart attacks, heart failure, pulmonary embolism and respiratory failure, as well as conditions leading to stiffer cardiac chambers and extra fluid in the heart. 

While the precise type of damage and its consequences varied, researchers also found a link between this damage in COVID-19 patients and troponin, a protein released when heart muscle becomes damaged. Among those with the most severe damage, troponin levels were elevated by 31.7 percent. 

All together, this research shows that COVID-19 is both more severe for people with existing heart issues and capable of causing heart issues in those without them. By performing ultrasounds on the heart and measuring troponin levels, doctors are hoping to be better able to assess the precise damage COVID-19 causes on individual patients’ hearts and address the damage accordingly. 

Although the exact reasons why COVID-19 damages the heart are still being studied, it’s thought that the overall inflammation the virus inflicts upon the body plays a role. It’s also speculated that the virus is capable of invading receptor cells within the tissue of the heart, causing direct damage this way. 

Until we know more, the advice regarding COVID-19 remains largely the same: Do what it takes to avoid getting it. This is especially true for people who already have heart issues, but if you don’t have them already, COVID-19 can easily change that.