The headlines are focused on the numbers surrounding COVID-19 cases, but there are some troubling indirect effects of the pandemic that Baylor College of Medicine cardiologists are saying we can’t ignore. Recent studies have found that there has been an increase in cardiovascular related deaths over the past year, and while there are a number of factors, one is thought to be related to the deferment of doctor visits.
“When it comes to heart health, we are seeing that people are deferring their care out of fear of heading to the clinician’s office and being exposed to COVID-19,” said Dr. Salim Virani, professor of medicine – cardiology at Baylor and a staff cardiologist at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “But the rules of engagement regarding heart health and emergencies should not change.”
While people who have heart disease are at a higher risk of suffering from severe COVID-19, including a higher risk of death from COVID-19, these same people are at risk for complications from their heart disease if they skip appointments or ignore worsening symptoms.
“At the start of the pandemic, there was a halt to some outpatient visits but the options to stay in contact with your clinician have increased since then to include virtual visits as well as phone calls or emails. It is important to stay in contact with your healthcare provider, especially if you have heart disease or another type of cardiovascular issue,” Virani said.
If an in-person visit is needed, Virani noted that many offices and hospitals have increased their efforts to keep areas safe through physically distanced check-ins and waiting areas, through symptom screenings and through strict use of face masks. Virani adds that you should take the same precautions you would at any public space to add to your safety; wear a mask, physically distance and sanitize your hands frequently.
He emphasizes that if an emergency does occur you should still call 911.
Another indirect effect of the pandemic on heart health is that more people are staying indoors and not participating in as many healthy activities, especially those that occur in a group setting. This adds up to a more sedentary lifestyle with less physical activity.
“Eating healthy and staying active is a part of a heart healthy lifestyle, so it is not a good change when physical activity levels are decreasing,” Virani said. “Remember to focus on physical distancing, not social distancing. You can still head outdoors and get some exercise. This can help with improving heart health and reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke.”
Another benefit of more exercise is that it could reduce stress, which has been known to be a contributing factor to high blood pressure, increasing your risk of cardiovascular issues.
This brings us back to why it is so important to stay in touch with your provider and not defer care, Virani says. Your clinician will be able to go over your risk factors and help you create a plan to maintain, treat or prevent cardiovascular disease and stay at your healthiest during the pandemic.