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February 26, 2021

Why heart health is important when recovering from COVID-19

Why heart health is important when recovering from COVID-19

Originally printed in the Indianapolis Business Journal on February 5, 2021

Keeping Hoosier hearts healthy after COVID-19

The year 2020 will hold a place in history textbooks for generations to come. All of the world’s major events, however, were dwarfed by the pandemic caused by the novel SARS-coronavirus (COVID-19). The world-wide pandemic virtually halted life as we know it. It disrupted almost all aspects of human interaction, distressed our health care system, and, most importantly, threatened the life of innumerable individuals.

While the burden of COVID-19 has been well recognized— around 575,000 Hoosiers have survived COVID-19 and 8,800 have died—mounting evidence suggests the infection can lead to heart damage and risks not apparent during the acute illness.

“Both the infection itself and the body’s immune system can attack heart tissue and small and large blood vessels, contributing to myocarditis and subsequent heart failure or arrhythmias,” says IU Health cardiologist Dr. Alexander Smolensky.

For instance, athletes—individuals who we’d think would have the reserves needed to withstand an infection—have alerted us to the possibility of inflammation of heart muscle, also known as myocarditis. This has affected a number of high-profile collegiate and professional players. These include Indiana University football player Brady Feeney and Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez.

Studies from athletes and other populations from around the world suggest we can be proactive in preventing heart problems after COVID-19, even though the problems are not easy to diagnose. Symptoms might not be present, and heart-related shortness of breath can be attributed to residual symptoms of COVID-related lung disease.

“We have seen vague symptoms like fatigue and palpitations,” says Dr. Smolensky. But those symptoms should prompt consideration of heart health, especially if you have a preexisting condition like high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease or a known heart condition.

The other side of the coin is that individuals might attribute classic symptoms of heart disease, such as chest pain, to COVID-19 infection. Too often, diagnosis and treatment of a heart attack was delayed because patients thought symptoms were a result of COVID-19 rather than a heart issue.

Compounding worse outcomes and lower survival has been a fear of contracting COVID-19 in medical settings, though these may be some of the safest places given the robust processes already in place to prevent infection from any cause.

How well are we prepared to prevent heart problems, not just for athletes but also for the broader population of individuals recovering from COVID?

Indiana University Health, in partnership with the Indiana University School of Medicine, the largest medical school in the United States, has a nationally recognized sports cardiology team led by Dr. Richard Kovacs and Dr. Smolensky that brings needed experts and experience together to serve both athletes and non-athletes concerned about heart health post-COVID.

“Our team, with expertise in areas like cardiology, radiology and sports medicine, carefully combines bedside assessments with appropriate state-of-the-art technology at a number of IU Health facilities to be able to noninvasively identify heart muscle inflammation or damage that can be treated to prevent future problems,” says IU Health cardiac imaging expert Dr. Ronald Mastouri.

Individuals concerned about heart disease prevention post-COVID should know that meticulously maintained outpatient offices as well as remote visits via telemedicine allow our experts to connect with you in a safe, timely manner.

Those suspected of having a COVID-related heart condition undergo thorough clinical evaluation and necessary testing, such as an ECG and heart MRI. If clues point to other heart disease concerns, other tests may be used to get the best picture of someone’s heart health.

To see an IU Health cardiologist for heart health post-COVID, please call 317.962.2500.

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