The COVID-19 isn’t just harming those who get this dangerous infection; even those who don’t get infected may still be getting sick because of it.
The latest research suggests that deadly heart attacks are one of the health risks affected by the pandemic. In a new study from JAMA Cardiology, researchers looked at more than 14,700 patients in several states who had heart attacks during and after the first US outbreaks. During the four-and-a-half-month study period, they found that the risk of dying from a heart attack has doubled during the pandemic, compared to before it started.
The data shows that fewer people were hospitalized with heart attacks during the first 5 weeks of the pandemic, starting in late February. Researchers believe that’s because people were afraid to go to hospitals and risk getting infected with COVID-19. Toward the end of March, however, hospital cases started to rise again.
Unfortunately, the high rate of severe heart attacks has not gone down to pre-COVID levels. Why?
One reason is that many people dropped their fitness routines and healthy eating during the lockdown and afterwards. People who work from home often have less activity in their lives overall. And gyms are closed in many places, giving people fewer options for staying fit. Gaining weight, moving less, and eating a poor diet all increase the risk for heart attacks and strokes.
High stress levels can also put your heart at risk. Stress causes the immune system to kick into gear, triggering inflammation. Inflammation in the blood vessels may lead to limited blood flow to the heart muscle or brain and increase the risk of a blockage that can cause a heart attack or stroke. Uncertainty about the future, losing your job, the fear of getting COVID-19, increased stress at home, or concerns about a loved one fighting the illness can all make your stress levels skyrocket.
But it’s never been more important to look after your heart. Here’s how you can start or return to healthier habits—and avoid a severe heart attack.
Know your goals
Remember that a healthy diet is one that includes lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; just a little red meat; fat-free milk and yogurt; unsaturated fats like olive oil; and very little added sugar and salt. If your doctor approves, exercise at a medium pace 5 times a week for at least 30 minutes. (Click here for tips on working out indoors.) And you should try to avoid stress or decrease your reaction to stress.
Lifestyle changes take time. It helps to build up to better habits over time. For instance, change 1 or 2 things about your current diet—such as cutting out sugar-sweetened drinks or aiming for 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Walk for just 10 minutes at first while you build up your stamina and strength. And take 10 seconds to breathe in deeply and feel your chest expand and another 10 seconds to breathe out slowly.
Build on success
Once you’ve conquered a goal, move on to a new one, such as avoiding red meat 1 or 2 times a week or walking for 15 minutes. Take 5 minutes to breathe deeply, look at something beautiful in nature, or reflect on the good things in your life.
Over time the new behavior becomes second nature. Before you know it, you’re ace-ing a healthy lifestyle!
Take heart symptoms seriously
The new study hints that people may be ignoring heart attack symptoms like chest or arm pain (or heaviness, especially in the left arm), nausea, shortness of breath, and fatigue. They hope the pain or weakness will just go away.
But the sooner you get checked out, the better your chance of life and making a full recovery. Even if a heart attack doesn’t kill you, if can cause long-term health issues and reduce your ability to do the things that give your life meaning. Call 911 if you have any reason to think you or a loved one may be having a heart attack. An ambulance is emergency help coming to you in record (and life-saving) time, much faster than you can get to the hospital on your own.
A commitment to change unhealthy habits—and quick thinking when symptoms strike—will give you the best shot at a healthy life long after the pandemic ends!
Gluckman TJ, et al. Case Rates, Treatment Approaches, and Outcomes in Acute Myocardial Infarction During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Pandemic. JAMA Cardiol. doi:10.1001/jamacardio.2020.3629
Cleveland Heart Lab Exercise at Home to Help Stay Healthy and Prevent Illness. Accessed October 15, 2020. https://www.clevelandheartlab.com/blog/exercise-at-home-to-help-stay-healthy-and-prevent-illness