Though the world is beginning to recover from the impact of last year’s COVID-19 pandemic, many effects of the pandemic have yet to be fully understood or studied. While the pandemic has undoubtedly affected businesses and industries the world over, a less obvious effect may be health conditions arising due to the pandemic’s lockdowns and shutdowns. Unrecognized and undiagnosed heart attacks could be one of those health conditions.
The incidents of diagnosed heart attacks fell during the pandemic simply due to the decrease in the number of patients seeking care. We have good data both from the United States and Europe that show a reduction in the number of ER visits, clinic visits and hospitalizations for cardiovascular issues. However, this is most likely a “false drop” in the numbers as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in June of this year that deaths due to heart disease in 2020 were up by 3% or 32,000. The increase is one of only two that have happened in 20 years, and it is by far the worst.
The global pandemic forced a new normal on the world accompanied by several lifestyle changes. Starting in March of 2020, during the first national lockdown in the U.S., people became more sedentary. Most recreational centers, parks, sports complexes, and gyms closed and remained so more than a year later. People started to work from home and abandoned previous routines of getting ready, commuting, walking from a parking lot, walking up stairs and down corridors, doing errands, and more. Those who tracked daily steps during time must have watched those numbers plummet over a period of days and then weeks.
Even when lockdowns eased, certain patterns did not go back to normal. A study by UCSF showed a 27% reduction in daily step counts. In addition, comfort foods, home baking, and ordering food through takeout or delivery increased. Fewer calories being burned and more being consumed led the “COVID-15”. In reality, it was more than 15 lbs. A survey by the APA revealed that 40% of adults gained approximately 30 lbs with 10% reporting weight gains of more than 50 lbs.
This combination of decreased activity, weight gain, and unhealthy dietary habits most likely contributed to an increase in the incidence and prevalence of heart disease, diabetes, and other adverse health effects such high blood pressure. Without proper medical examinations and care, it’s possible that many experienced mild heart attacks without realizing it.
Whether recognized or not, the symptoms of an oncoming heart attack remain the same: pain in the chest, shoulders, back, neck or jaw, as well as shortness of breath, tiredness or fatigue, cold sweats, nausea and heartburn-like symptoms. In the event that any of these symptoms arise (but particularly chest pain), I encourage those experiencing them to seek immediate medical attention.
Many patients experience symptoms but wait too long before seeking help. Studies show this is especially true of women and minorities. Not treating a heart attack can lead to arrhythmias, stroke, heart failure, and even death in the most extreme cases.
When it comes to preventing heart disease or unrecognized heart attacks, her are four steps you can take:
Step one, and perhaps the most important, is to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Vaccinated persons are likely to feel more confident about returning to pre-pandemic activities such as shopping, travel, visiting parks, visiting family, etc. Obviously some of this depends on local/state laws, your job and your employer’s policies about returning to the office.
Step two is to re-engage with your doctor and other medical professionals. Catch up with your regular examinations and assess your current condition. Have your primary care physician conduct a thorough physical examination and look for signs of heart disease.
Step three is to return to a normal exercise routine. FitnessBlender.com has fantastic free home workout videos to help you get back into an exercise routine.
Step four is to eat healthier by reducing take-out and increasing healthy home-cooked meals.
ABOUT DR. SADI RAZA:
Sadi Raza, MD, is a board-certified cardiologist. He is trained in invasive and advanced non-invasive cardiology. This includes Echocardiography (including intra-op and intra-procedural TEE for TAVR, left atrial appendage occluders) and Nuclear cardiology (PET and SPECT) at the University of Vermont with additional training in Advanced Cardiac Imaging (Cardiac MRI and Cardiac CT) at Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. His interests include general cardiology and cardiovascular consultations, preventative cardiology, stress testing, and the management of both acute and chronic cardiovascular issues on both an in-patient and out-patient basis. He is based near Dallas, Texas.
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