Dr. Kevin Campbell: Coronavirus and heart disease — 3 keys to help minimize your risk factors

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As we learn more about COVID 19, we have come to realize that certain groups of patients tend to develop more severe forms of the disease and have a much higher likelihood of death once infected.

Those with chronic diseases such as diabetes, lung disease, cancer and heart disease — just to name a few — have been found to be at much higher risk for complications from COVID-19, including ICU stays, need for mechanical ventilation and even death.

Specifically, the presence of heart disease has been shown to be highly correlated with death in COVID patients. In one study from China, it was found that nearly 10 percent of COVID patients who have preexisting heart disease died (as compared with 1 percent in the general population without underlying heart disease).

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There also have been reports from all over the world showing an association between COVID-19 and cardiovascular symptoms and dangerous heart-related conditions, including heart attacks, strokes and myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart muscle that can lead to congestive heart failure). In addition, COVID 19 infection has been associated with an increased prediction for our blood to form clots — these clots can cause heart attacks and strokes as well as other serious medical conditions.

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Coronary artery disease — the cause of heart attacks — is an inflammatory process and the most severe COVID-19 cases are associated with a hyper-inflammatory response from our own bodies as we attempt to fight off the infection. For example, when the lining of our blood vessels that supply our heart and brain become inflamed, the damage that occurs can promote the formation of blood clots that lead to strokes and heart attacks.

It stands to reason that the inflammation created by COVID-19 can exacerbate underlying heart disease and unmask previously undiagnosed cardiac conditions.

What can you do now?

Know Your Numbers — Know Your Risk 

It is vital that you understand what your risk for heart disease may be. Risk factors include diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, family history of heart disease and male gender.

Some of these risk factors you can control and modify. Others, like gender and family history, you can’t. You are born with your own genetic code and that is part of what makes you who you are.

Developing a relationship NOW with your primary care physician can allow you to improve your health and impact your ability to fight off a potential COVID infection in the future.  

However, it is important that you assess YOUR own risk for heart disease and work with your doctor to lower your risk by lowering your body weight through diet and exercise and treating any underlying conditions such as high blood pressure and cholesterol.

If you have diabetes, it is imperative that you control your blood sugar and, if you have type 2 diabetes, weight loss may reverse the course of the disease altogether.

Developing a relationship NOW with your primary care physician can allow you to improve your health and impact your ability to fight off a potential COVID infection in the future.

Exercise Daily 

The impact of exercise on cardiovascular health cannot be understated. During the pandemic, many Americans have turned to homemade workouts while gyms are closed.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that we all get at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise every single week. Exercise improves your cardiovascular capacity and your mood. In addition, exercise can boost your immune system — which is incredibly important in fighting off a COVID-19 infection.

Sleep Well 

Sleep has been shown to stimulate our immune system. Numerous studies have found that people who do not get adequate sleep are much more likely to become infected with a virus after exposure.

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While these studies were NOT done with COVID 19 in mind, they do lend credence to the idea that sleep is important for our overall health.

Sleep helps you produce antibodies and also provides time for your cells to repair themselves — all of which make you more prepared to fight infection. In addition, sleep is important for maintaining cardiovascular health.

Studies show that sleep deprivation increases inflammation and the likelihood of developing obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure — all of which are risk factors for heart attack and stroke.

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The COVID-19 pandemic will pass in time. Let’s all use this time in lockdown wisely to improve our health and reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease. When and if the pandemic returns, we can then face it with healthier bodies and reduce our risk of contracting the disease in the first place.

At the very least, by improving our baseline cardiovascular health, we can significantly reduce our risk of experiencing severe life-threatening complications of COVID-19 infection.

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