The coronavirus infects without discrimination, but some people are more likely to die from it than others.
In a series of research papers, scientists have confirmed suspicions that COVID-19 can damage otherwise healthy hearts and is more likely to kill people suffering from heart disease.
About one-quarter of coronavirus patients who end up in hospital suffer heart injury, according to a study published by the American College of Cardiology.
That’s because the coronavirus can cause blood clots and irregular heart rhythm, the researchers said.
A second study published in the same journal identifies a COVID-related cardio-metabolic syndrome in patients who have high body fat, unstable blood sugar, high levels of fat in the bloodstream, and high blood pressure.
Associate Professor David Colquhoun, a cardiologist at the University of Queensland, said scientists discovered the coronavirus could cause blood clotting early on in the pandemic.
“The key thing COVID causes – what kills you – is the respiratory virus,” he said.
“But early on we realised there was a lot of blood clotting going on.”
He said one of the major effects of the coronavirus on the heart was inflammation.
“About one in five patients get inflammation of the heart muscle, which is not uncommon with other viral illnesses like influenza,” said Associate Professor Colquhoun, a board member of the Heart Foundation and co-president of the Prevention Council of the Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand.
“The heart muscle gets inflamed like an inflamed joint. You injure your leg, you pull muscle in your leg, you recover. It doesn’t mean it’s permanent.
We know that most of the heart inflammation will resolve and people recover – but not necessarily everyone.”
However, if you’ve already got high cholesterol – where a fat-like plaque clogs some of your arteries – the added stress of inflammation might lead to a heart attack, he said.
Associate Professor Colquhoun said the research papers drew attention to the ongoing threat of heart disease, Australia’s number one killer, and how it can reduce a COVID patient’s chances of survival.
Already, about 27,000 Australians die from heart disease every year, according to The Heart Foundation. That’s one person every 72 minutes.
In Australia, coronary disease does not take time off,” he said.
“Of course we fear the coronavirus, and we could have been like the Italians, or the Americans or the English, but we’ve been far smarter than they have been.”
More than 36,000 Italians, 220,000 Americans and 43,000 Brits have died from the coronavirus so far, compared to less than 1000 Australians.
Although every death is a tragedy, Associate Professor Colquhoun said Australia should “celebrate how well we’ve done” compared to many other countries around the world.
“It could’ve been as bad as coronary heart disease, but it’s not,” he said.
Tips for keeping your heart healthy
- Eat a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and healthy fats like those found in avocados and nuts
- Avoid adding too much salt to your meals
- Exercise regularly, even if it’s just walking
- Quit smoking
- Get your heart checked by a doctor to find out if you’ve got high cholesterol.