Intermountain physician explains long-term cardiovascular impacts of COVID-19

Recent research shows a concerning prevalence of cardiovascular complications in recovered COVID-19 patients, according to an expert from Intermountain Health Care. On Tuesday, Dr. Kirk Knowlton, director of cardiovascular research and chair of the cardiovascular department at Intermountain, said individuals who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 should be wary of their cardiovascular health.



Knowlton said individuals with underlying heart disease are the most at-risk of adverse cardiovascular impacts from COVID-19. 

“I think it’s important for listeners to remember that, if they have family members or if they themselves have heart disease, it’s even more important to keep them from exposure to COVID and also to be aggressive about getting them vaccinations.”

However, Knowlton emphasized that COVID-19-related cardiovascular issues can even emerge in younger individuals with no history of heart disease. For instance, a recent study published in the European Heart Journal (EHJ) showed that approximately 54% of study participants who were hospitalized and seriously ill from COVID-19 had evidence of heart damage after they recovered. 

While Knowlton said not to be overly alarmed by the results of this study, he acknowledged that its findings are nonetheless concerning and show how COVID-19 can have long-lasting effects on the heart. Coronavirus is usually reported to cause heart damage in 20% to 30% of individuals who have had it, compared to the EHJ study’s 54%, he added.

“[The EHJ study] showed, once again, that COVID can affect the heart. There are a variety of mechanisms by which that can occur.

According to Knowlton, there are several other studies that have shown even higher percentages of heart disease in COVID-19 patients. He said one study from Germany showed 75% of COVID-19 patients had heart disease — this is especially alarming because it was conducted on people who were not seriously ill from the disease.

He cited a recent study in which autopsies of individuals who died from COVID-19 had evidence of the virus in their heart. This can lead to blood clots in heart vessels, arteries and pulmonary emboli (arteries leading to the lungs). It can also make it difficult for the heart to contract and cause arrhythmias or mild pericarditis (inflammation around the outside of the heart).

He also referred to a study from Vanderbilt University that showed a small percentage of participants having mild myocarditis — inflammation of the heart. While discussing myocarditis, he dispelled claims that heart disease can be particularly prevalent in athletes who have had COVID-19, saying recent studies have discredited this claim by showing very small numbers of athletes with post-COVID-19 heart complications.

He said patients who have recently recovered from COVID-19 should be vigilant of any chest pain, palpitations or shortness of breath. According to Knowlton, shortness of breath is the most troubling symptom because it indicates that COVID-19 could be affecting the heart itself.

While he said this can be difficult to discern from the lung disease that can be caused by COVID, he still insisted on the importance of monitoring the symptom.

Knowlton said COVID-19 is also indirectly affecting the cardiovascular health of individuals without the disease, as many people are refusing to seek medical attention due to fears of COVID-19 exposure. According to him, this prevents patients from receiving critical cardiovascular care.

“Hospitals are very well prepared to make sure that people are safe from COVID exposure. It’s really important, given the urgency of heart disease and stroke, that when people are having a heart attack, they need to come in right away to be seen. If they’re having a stroke, it’s really important that they come in right away. There have been too many stories of people who, unfortunately, are afraid they’ll get COVID and wait, and either they complete a heart attack or a few have even died at home before they come into the hospital.”

Knowlton explained that patients who have recovered from COVID-19 and are experiencing no symptoms of cardiovascular issues likely do not have to worry. However, if the patient had heart issues while hospitalized for COVID-19 or is experiencing symptoms after their recovery, he recommends they seek medical attention. According to him, getting the COVID-19 vaccine is the best way to protect against COVID-19-related cardiovascular disease.