The pandemic has impacted us in many ways, but it’s time to show your heart some love. Here, cardiologists offer tips to get back on track.
Every February, in commemoration of American Heart Month, the American Heart Association brings awareness to heart disease and reinforces the importance of heart health. This February feels markedly different because of the impact of COVID-19 over the past year. Our country has had to cope not only with the fear of getting sick, but also with elevated stress levels, unfamiliar work and school routines, unemployment, reduced access to gyms and healthy food options, physical distance from our loved ones and more.
After a rollercoaster of a year, it’s important to start paying close attention to our heart health. We spoke with Dr. David Fischman and Dr. David O’Neil, cardiologists at Jefferson Health – New Jersey, to find out more about how COVID-19 affects heart health and what we can do to prevent heart disease during the pandemic.
Pandemic Stress Leads to Behavior Changes
There’s no doubt that many of us have faced heightened stress levels during the pandemic. While our reasons for being stressed have changed since early 2020, we still have plenty to worry about. “An increase in stress, whether it’s brought on by lockdowns or vaccines, often leads to changes in behavior. In other words, many people have picked up—or kept—bad habits during the pandemic,” says Dr. Fischman.
Risk factors for heart disease include smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, lack of exercise and weight gain. “We’ve seen trends with more people going back to smoking or simply not quitting because of pandemic stress. Gyms are closed so people are exercising less. And stress has also led to unhealthy eating habits resulting in weight gain,” says Dr. Fischman. Changes in individual behaviors can affect a person’s heart health and increase their risk of developing heart disease in the future.
“Weight gain not only causes shortness of breath but can also increase your blood pressure. A lot of health checkups are being conducted virtually right now, so we’re not checking the blood pressure of our patients as often. Many people may have higher blood pressure now and not even know it,” says Dr. O’Neil.
Reconnect with Your Primary Care Provider
Another behavior that COVID-19 changed is the frequency of visits to the doctor. Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, doctors’ offices may have had limited appointments for non-emergencies or patients may have avoided visiting a medical facility for fear of getting sick.
“Last year, we saw a 40% decline in heart attack-related visits to the emergency room. That doesn’t mean that fewer people were having heart attacks, but that patients were avoiding the doctor even during serious health events,” says Dr. Fischman.
Whether it’s in person or via telehealth, now is a great time to reconnect with your physician. “Ideally, you should see your primary care physician every six to 12 months. Many patients have gone more than a year without a health check-up, so it’s time to call your doctor and schedule an appointment. They can evaluate what’s changed with your health and give specific guidance on how you can maintain or start working towards heart-healthy habits,” says Dr. Fischman.
How Does COVID-19 Affect Your Heart?
Although COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, it can have a major impact on your vascular system. Those with severe cases of COVID-19 are at risk of heart attack and stroke. “For patients with less severe cases, those who aren’t hospitalized, they may have fatigue, tiredness, loss of taste and shortness of breath,” says Dr. Fischman. “If you’re someone who already has a history of heart disease, these side effects of COVID-19 may make it hard for you to
maintain healthy habits like exercising, so it’s important to talk to your doctor regularly to check in about your heart health.”
It’s especially important for heart disease patients to remain vigilant about protecting themselves from contracting COVID-19. “Heart patients are more at risk for heart attack, stroke or pulmonary embolism, so it’s especially important for those people to continue following the COVID-19 preventive guidelines for mask-wearing, washing your hands and social distancing, as well as limiting contact with people outside of their households,” says Dr. O’Neil.
Heart patients should also keep taking their medication, even if they’re diagnosed with COVID-19, unless specifically instructed by their healthcare provider to stop.
Positive Changes Keep Your Heart Healthy
It’s important to keep in mind that those of us who haven’t received a vaccine are still at risk of contracting COVID-19. “We’re seeing city restrictions ease up, so our natural instinct is to congregate more. But, especially for those who have existing heart disease, it’s important to continue limiting your interactions with others and staying away from crowds,” says Dr. O’Neil.
But however you’re feeling during this pandemic, know that you’re not alone.—Dr. Fischman
If you’re worried about your heart health, the first step is to visit your doctor—physically or virtually. They can evaluate your current health and make recommendations for positive lifestyle changes.
“We can make an effort to resume our healthy habits right now,” says Dr. Fischman. “Take a close look at your lifestyle and identify the places you’ve been lacking. Maybe you can’t go to the gym right now, but you can exercise outside or in your house. Try swapping takeout for home-cooked healthy meals. I would even suggest buying an at-home blood pressure monitor and sharing the numbers with your doctor.”
“Start getting more active by going on three 15-minute walks per day. Sitting for prolonged periods of time increases cardiac risk, so you should be making a concerted effort to get up and moving if you’re stuck at a computer most of the day,” says Dr. O’Neil.
Another way to cut down on stress and unhealthy habits is to reconnect with your loved ones, even if it’s virtual. “We should recognize that it’s going to be a little longer before we get back to some semblance of normalcy. The lack of social interaction is a real problem for people, so make a concerted effort to connect with your friends and family on a regular basis,” says Dr. Fischman. “Do whatever you can to cut down on stress—from some, that might mean trying therapy, meditation or yoga. But however you’re feeling during this pandemic, know that you’re not alone.”