Mercy Hospital

Mercy Hospital pictured from the intersection of Third Street and Highway 47 Wednesday, Sept. 16.

Cardiologists are speaking out about what they call worrying signs that COVID-19 could lead to a significant increase in the number of Americans with heart disease and other heart-related health concerns.

“Cardiologists are literally seeing people every day who were previously healthy who contracted COVID-19 and are recovering but are continuing to experience symptoms from COVID-19,” said Mercy Clinic physician Dr. Brian Seeck.

The Washington cardiologist said many of the symptoms these patients are showing are being lumped into “Post-COVID Syndrome,” a catch-all phrase Seeck said describes symptoms like “atrial fibrillation, blood-clotting disorders, strokes, heart attacks, weakened hearts” and others.

“There is a whole myriad of symptoms,” Seeck said. “I know some of it is not well described right now, but I think we forget that we didn’t even know what this disease was hardly a year ago. So knowing the implications of it is really hard. But I can tell you now, after seeing dozens of patients, that COVID-19 affects the heart, the kidneys, the lungs — there is very little of the human body that this virus doesn’t affect.”

One study from the Journal of American Medical Association Cardiology found that of a sample group of 100 people who had recovered from COVID-19, 78 had evidence of scarring on the heart or some damage. A follow-up study found that those who had evidence of inflammation previously around their hearts no longer showed signs of inflammation after several months.

“It is like their hearts had gone back to normal. Most didn’t have any long-lasting side effects,” Seeck said.

Even those who have not contracted COVID-19 should be concerned about their heart health, Seeck said. A study released by the American Heart Association predicted a surge of cardiovascular death and disease in the months and years to come as a lagging indicator of the lifestyle changes forced upon the world by a pandemic.

“The traditional risk factors of heart disease — being overweight, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol — have all become a lot worse from a cardiologist’s standpoint over the last year,” Seeck said. Seeck said he believed that the health effects of lockdown on a nation that already eats too much, drinks too much, exercises too little and fails too often to show up for regular check-ups — all behaviors that drive cardiovascular disease — will only get worse.

“The biggest thing I think we have seen is increased body weight I’ve jokingly called COVID-19, with the 19 referring to the 19 pounds of being too close to your pantry,” Seeck said. “Patients have gained 10, 20, 30 pounds or more. They know why it is — they’ve been working from home, they are not up moving, they are not getting to their gym because it was shut down, or they are working from their kitchen, which is close to the pantry. They are stressed out and watching the news all day.”

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in Missouri, and almost 70 percent of Missourians are overweight or obese, according to the American Heart Association.

Among his patients, Seeck said, approximately 95 percent are either overweight or obese. “There is no doubt that being overweight significantly impacts the risk of heart disease.”

Seeck said he is encouraging his patients to do a minimum of 30 minutes of “good physical activity per day.”

“One of the challenges is that prior to the pandemic, most of us were getting a lot more than 30 minutes of physical activity because we would walk to the car, walk to work, walk through the store, walk through the office, walk through the house, and we would walk the dog and so on. All of these things add to our activity levels, but we haven’t been doing these things,” Seeck said. “During a pandemic, you probably need to be more active than the standard 30 minutes because the rest of your activity level is so reduced.”

In September, medical researchers found that alcohol consumption has gone up by 14 percent in a sample group of 1,540 adults during the pandemic. A similar study of 3,000 adults found that 32.3 percent of previously active adults were less active during the first months of pandemic.

Seeck said he also was concerned by a growing statistic that public health officials describe as “excess mortality,” a term used to describe people who died of preventable diseases and illnesses but delayed treatment or never sought treatment out of concern over contracting COVID-19.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though 340,000 people had died of COVID-19 as of December 2020, an additional 160,000 people had died from things that were not COVID-19 but largely thought to be preventable and treatable.

“I remember very early on in the pandemic that we had a patient who was at home with his wife. He went through four hours of chest pain but was afraid that if he went to the hospital that he would get COVID-19,” Seeck said. “By the time his wife called 911 and he was brought to the emergency room, he had died. ... Patients have been so understandably worried about catching COVID-19 that they are not going to the doctor to see about their high blood pressure or a cancer screening or to the pharmacy to get a new prescription filled or prescriptions refilled.”

He continued: “We are going to see an increased burden of cancer that would have otherwise been diagnosed earlier and treated earlier. That, just like increased body weight and heart disease, is going to affect us for several years into the future as a society.”