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March 4, 2022 — People who contract COVID-19 face higher risks for 20 different heart and vascular diseases after being infected, according to a new study published in NatureMedicine.

Even people who weren’t hospitalized with COVID-19 developed more cardiovascular disease than those who were never infected, the study found. Long-term effects could include heart failure, stroke, irregular heart rhythms, blood clots, blood vessel diseases, and heart inflammation disorders such as pericarditis and myocarditis.

“There were 20 cardiac disorders that were diagnosed for those patients that are suffering from long haul COVID. The most common is the shortness of breath and fatigue,” Evelina Grayver, MD, the director of women’s heart health at Northwell Health in New York, who wasn’t involved with the study, told Fox News.

“The new arrhythmias, or the abnormal heart rhythms that people experience, are significant as well and can become incredibly handicapping for a lot of patients,” she said.

Researchers analyzed data for more than 11 million US veterans in national health care databases from the US Department of Veterans Affairs, which included nearly 154,000 veterans who had COVID-19 between March 2020 and January 2021. They estimated the risks and one-year outlook for 20 cardiovascular diseases.

Veterans who had COVID-19 one year earlier had a significantly higher risk for all 20 of the different heart and vessel conditions as compared with those who didn’t contract coronavirus. The risk rose with the severity of COVID-19, climbing even higher among the nearly 17,000 veterans who were hospitalized and the 5,400 veterans who were treated in intensive care units.

The risk varied by condition. For instance, veterans who had COVID-19 faced a 72% higher risk of heart failure after 12 months than those who didn’t test positive. That translated to about 12 more people per 1,000 developing heart failure, the study found. Overall, 45 more infected people per 1,000 developed any of the 20 conditions than uninfected people.

The study period ended before vaccines were widely available, so 99.7% of the infected veterans were unvaccinated when they contracted COVID-19, according to Science. That means the paper doesn’t address whether the risks for long-term cardiovascular problems are the same after breakthrough infections in vaccinated people. Another study is analyzing that question and is now under review at a medical journal, the news outlet reported.

In addition, study authors noted, the analysis focused on the veteran population, which tends to be older, white, and male. About 90% of the patients were men, more than 70% were white, and the average age was 60. The research team controlled for the possibility that those who contracted COVID-19 were already more prone to developing cardiovascular disease, Science reported. They also used statistical tools to correct for gender and race.

“COVID is an equal opportunity offender,” Ziyad Al-Aly, the senior study author and chief of research at the VA St. Louis Health Care System, told the news outlet.

“We found an increased risk of cardiovascular problems in old people and in young people, in people with diabetes and without diabetes, in people with obesity and people without obesity, in people who smoked and who never smoked,” he said.

Scientists are now studying how COVID-19 damages the heart and blood vessels and increases the risk for cardiovascular diseases. Coronavirus may directly attack heart muscles during infection, cause inflammation in the cells that line the inside of the heart and blood vessels, and lead to overall inflammation that scars the heart and vessels, Al-Aly told Science.

For now, he said, the study suggests that millions of COVID-19 survivors in the US will suffer long-term consequences, which could strain the health care system for years to come and decrease life expectancy.

“What really worries me is that some of these conditions are chronic conditions that will literally scar people for a lifetime,” he said. “It’s not like you wake up tomorrow and suddenly no longer have heart failure.”

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