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COVID-19 can severely impact heart health and function, study finds

Experts say the virus directly attacks heart muscle cells

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Photo (c) Iuliia Bondar - Getty Images
Recent studies have found that COVID-19 can affect several organs throughout the body, including the brain and the heart

Now, researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine have explored in-depth how the heart is affected by the virus. According to their findings, COVID-19 can weaken overall heart function by attacking and destroying heart muscle cells. 

“Early on in the pandemic, we had evidence that this coronavirus can cause heart failure or cardiac injury in generally healthy people, which was alarming to the cardiology community,” said researcher Dr. Kory J. Lavine. “Even some college athletes who had been cleared to go back to competitive athletics after COVID-19 infection later showed scarring in the heart. There has been debate over whether this is due to direct infection of the heart or due to a systemic inflammatory response that occurs because of the lung infection.

“Our study is unique because it definitively shows that, in patients with COVID-19 who developed heart failure, the virus infects the heart, especially heart muscle cells,” he said. 

How the virus attacks the heart

To better understand what effect COVID-19 has on the heart, the researchers constructed a human heart model out of stem cells and exposed it to the virus. Then, they evaluated the direct impact that it had on overall heart function to determine what many consumers are experiencing after getting infected. 

The researchers learned that COVID-19 significantly impacted heart function. In their model, the heart’s muscle cells were destroyed once the virus reached it, and viral cells replicated and spread. This attack puts a lot of stress on the heart and limits its ability to pump and contract as it normally would. 

Prior to these findings, experts believed that the body’s inflammatory response was to blame for coronavirus-related heart damage. However, this study debunked that myth and showed that heart muscle cells were destroyed and heart function was still impaired regardless of inflammation. 

“COVID-19 is causing a different immune response in the heart compared with other viruses, and we don’t know what that means yet,” said Dr. Lavine. “In general, the immune cells seen responding to other viruses tend to be associated with a relatively short distance that resolves with supportive care. But the immune cells we see in COVID-19 heart patients tend to be associated with a chronic condition that can have long-term consequences. These are associations, so we will need more research to understand what is happening.” 

The researchers hope that the significance of these findings resonates with consumers and health officials.  

“Even young people who had very mild symptoms can develop heart problems later on that limit their exercise capacity,” Dr. Lavine said. “We want to understand what’s happening so we can prevent it or treat it. In the meantime, we want everyone to take this virus seriously and do their best to take precautions and stop the spread, so we don’t have an even larger epidemic of preventable heart disease in the future.” 

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