COVID-19 FAQs: What should heart and stroke patients know?

Why this group is at high risk for coronavirus — and what to do about it

heart monitor screen

Heart and stroke patients should take extra precautions to stay healthy as COVID-19 spreads across the country.

As health experts learn more about how COVID-19 affects the body, research is showing that those over age 65 with coronary heart disease or high blood pressure are at a higher risk. According to the American Heart Association, those with heart issues are more likely to get the virus and more likely to develop severe symptoms.

To answer the questions this raises among the more than 120 million Americans living with cardiovascular disease, Dr. Tom Stys, medical director of Sanford Health cardiology services, provides insight and advice for navigating the current pandemic.

How might COVID-19 affect patients with underlying heart issues or history of stroke?

“The cardiovascular involvement in COVID-19 patients is very substantial and it’s important for patients to be aware of. For one, the virus itself directly affects the heart. The other fact we know is that patients with cardiovascular disease or risk factors such as diabetes, hypertension or obesity have a worse prognosis than patients who do not have these health conditions. It’s very important to realize that if you have heart disease, you are at more of a risk.”

How does coronavirus affect the heart?

“The two organs that the virus affects in a major way are the lungs and the heart. It occurs through an enzyme molecule that is present in the lungs and the heart muscle in abundance. That enzyme is used as an anchor for the virus to infect the body’s cells.

“Currently, we know that 10-20% of COVID-19 hospitalized patients experience injury to the heart muscle. Over 15% of hospitalized patients have developed a heart arrhythmia or irregular heart rhythm, and so there is a substantial risk of cardiac complications from the virus. These acute cardiac complications can include inflammation of the heart muscle and decreased heart function that puts patients at risk for heart failure, heart attack, developing an arrhythmia and cardiac arrest.”

What should heart and stroke patients do to protect themselves from COVID-19?

  • Follow recommended guidelines. Because heart and stroke patients are at a higher risk for infection and severe disease, this group of people should follow all recommended precautions with extreme diligence. It’s recommended that you practice social distancing and basic hygiene such as washing your hands, along with avoiding unnecessary contact with others.
  • Take your heart medication. It’s also important to make sure that if you do have diabetes, high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease, your health is optimized as much as possible. Make sure that you have your insulin, that you’re regulating your blood pressure and don’t skip any medications.
  • “Stay in touch with your doctor. If you have any questions, don’t wait to call your cardiologist or your primary care provider. Unfortunately, heart issues aren’t benign during a pandemic so you don’t want to neglect any significant symptoms of a heart attack, which can include being short of breath and having chest pain or an irregular heartbeat. For stroke, symptoms can include sudden trouble walking, speaking, responding and numbness in the face, arm or leg. If it crosses your mind that you could be having a heart attack or stroke, pick up the phone and call 911 or your doctor.

“At the Sanford Heart Hospital, we continue to be available like we always are, 24 hours a day, seven days a week to answer your questions. In some situations it may be advisable to do a telehealth visit instead of an in-person visit, however our clinic will remain under our normal operating hours and if anything were to change, our patients would be notified.”

Why should I maintain a healthy lifestyle, even with increased time at home?

“A healthy lifestyle plays a key role in being heart-healthy. Especially in the middle of a pandemic, it’s extremely important to be eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and a good night’s sleep. All of these daily choices will help you stay as healthy as possible and will help your body fight any disease. Especially with exercise, I would encourage you to find creative ways to stay active at home.”

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Posted In Brain & Spine, Coronavirus, Frequently Asked Questions, Heart

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