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Why are heart patients among the most at-risk from coronavirus?

Published: Apr. 7, 2020 at 7:04 PM CDT
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Around 120 million Americans have some form of heart disease and the odds are 1-in-10 for people in that group dying who contract the coronavirus.

That startling mortality rate is higher (10.5 percent0 than those with diabetes (7 percent) and chronic lung disease (6 percent) which might be a bit surprising since the virus affects the respiratory system.

""The lungs are the primary target of this virus," explained Dr. Anoop Chandrika Parameswaran, a cardiology specialist with Mercy. "But people with heart disease are generally at higher risk no matter what diseases they get. So if you are dealing with pneumonia which requires your heart to pump much harder than usual, the heart is not able to keep up and that's going to increase your mortality. There could also be an indirect affect as the body generally mounts a strong immune response to the virus and sometimes that immune response can be too much and flood the heart, causing damage to the heart muscle as well."

"The body in somebody who's had heart disease or a stroke has less of what we call 'physiological reserves' or the ability to handle any kind of illness," added Dr. Mitchell S.V. Elkind, the President-Elect of the American Heart Association. "And so a severe illness can make things worse."

Emerging studies from China and Italy are even more daunting about problems for heart patients, .finding that 1-in-5 coronavirus patients in those countries had cardiac damage even though they had no signs of breathing problems.

That may cause doctors to reassess their treatment as the big mystery remains to be solved. Are the heart problems being caused by the virus itself or are they a byproduct of the body's reaction to the illness?

"From preliminary data indeed COVID-19 does cause an inflammation or infection of the heart muscle itself," said Dr. Edward Sanchez, a Chief Medical Officer for Prevention. "Also it appears that in persons who have died, the cause of death is a fatal arrhythmia and it's not clear why that's happening."

What we do know from overseas studies is that more than half of those with heart problems (51 percent) died when they got the coronavius compared to only four-out-of-every-100 (4.5 percent) who didn't have heart problems.

So if you are high-risk, act quickly if you get the symptoms.

"If you can prevent the severe complications and severe pneumonia that by itself will be protective for the heart and other organs," Dr. Anoop said.

For more information on the coronavirus and heart patients, you can visit the American Heart Association's website at www.heart.org