AHA News: The health ripple effects of the pandemic have begun. What can we do now? – Consumer Health News

TUESDAY, April 5, 2022 (American Heart Association News) — For more than two years, the direct damage of COVID-19 has been visible in overwhelmed intensive care departments and grim statistics. Today, some of its indirect effects are highlighted.

Studies link the pandemic to higher rates of fatal heart disease and strokes, deaths from substance abuse issues, and more. The exact causes of these connections are still being determined, experts say, but the effects can be long-lasting.

With heart health, part of the problem is that people often avoided or delayed treatment due to COVID-19 fears, said Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, cardiologist, epidemiologist and chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

“People have lost touch with their usual sources of health care,” said Lloyd-Jones, president of the American Heart Association. “And we’ve seen dramatic differences in blood pressure control rates, in diabetes control rates. People just weren’t able to go to their doctors and know their numbers and make sure that these things were under control.”

The harm caused by this delayed care is not just short-term, he said. “It will last and have ripple effects for years to come.”

Lloyd-Jones was co-author of a study recently published in JAMA Network Open that showed that after years of a downward trend, the risk of dying from heart disease or stroke increased in 2020 – the first year of the pandemic. Even after adjusting for the aging of the population, the risk of dying from heart disease increased by 4.3% and by 6.4% for stroke. The increases were greatest among blacks, who had a twice as high risk of dying from stroke and a five times as high risk of dying from heart disease than whites.

The study said likely factors included overcrowded hospitals, fewer visits for medical care, poor medication adherence and increased barriers to healthy lifestyle behaviors.

This finding was just one of several regarding the increase in death rates during the first year of the pandemic.

A JAMA Neurology study of Medicare enrollees aged 65 and older found an increased risk of death from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease from March to December 2020. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that black and Hispanic women died at a higher rate during or soon after pregnancy in 2020 than in 2019. Deaths from alcohol and drug overdoses also increased, according to the research.

Dr. Patricia Best, an interventional cardiologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said the statistics reflect the overwhelming challenges hospitals are facing in the face of waves of COVID-19 patients.

For example, “there were transportation issues, where people couldn’t be moved from an ambulance to a hospital because there were no beds,” Best said. “And there were times when patients waited a long time to be transferred from one hospital to another where there was a bed for proper care.”

Routine care also declined, she said, “because we had periods where patients were unable to enter their doctor’s offices.” Or those who lost their jobs with health insurance couldn’t see a doctor or fill a prescription because of the cost.

This has compounded existing disparities in care, said Dr. Connie Tsao, a cardiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

It is not enough for medical professionals, she said, to simply ask those most in need to get out of unhealthy situations – such as poverty or lack of access to healthy food. “I think it really comes down to what other people can do?” Government entities and health organizations need to create structural changes, Tsao said.

Nevertheless, individuals can take steps to protect themselves:

  • Get back on track with regular care – now. “It sure is,” Lloyd-Jones said. “It’s important. See your doctor, know your numbers and plan how we’re going to get things back under control.”
  • Reboot into healthy routines that include physical activity, nutritious food and good sleep, Tsao said.
  • If you’re struggling with an addiction, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers a national helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357) or by texting your zip code to HELP4U (435748).
  • If you or a loved one are showing symptoms of a serious problem, don’t ignore them. “During the pandemic, we’ve seen a lot of people come in very late with their heart attacks, where we can do less,” Best said. “And that’s one of the things that was increasing mortality.” People should call 911 if they experience chest discomfort or other heart attack symptoms or if they or a loved one develops stroke symptoms such as facial drooping or speech difficulties.
  • To get vaccinated. “If you get your COVID vaccine, you’re less likely to get COVID,” Best said. “And you’re less likely to be in the hospital with COVID. You’re less likely to be one of the diminishing resource factors for everyone.”
  • De-stress. Stress impacts many heart-related factors — “our sleep, our blood pressure, our ability to lose weight,” Lloyd-Jones said. When you exercise, for example, “you give your body a release valve for some of that stress.” Restoring social connections will also reduce stress, he said, and help people “get back to a joyful life, which is good for the heart and good for the brain”.

American Heart Association News covers heart and brain health. Any opinions expressed in this story do not reflect the official position of the American Heart Association. Copyright is owned or held by the American Heart Association, Inc., and all rights are reserved. If you have any questions or comments about this story, please email [email protected]

By Michael Merschel, American Heart Association News