People who have had COVID are at increased risk of developing heart conditions within the first month to a year after infection. Such COVID heart conditions include disruptive heart rhythms, inflammation of the heart, blood clots, stroke, coronary artery disease, heart attack, heart failure or even death.

Such problems occur even among previously healthy individuals and those who have had mild COVID-19 infections, according to the study, from researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System.

The research is published Feb. 7 in Nature Medicine.

“We wanted to build upon our past research on COVID’s long-term effects by taking a closer look at what’s happening in people’s hearts,” said senior author Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Washington University. “What we’re seeing isn’t good. COVID-19 can lead to serious cardiovascular complications and death. The heart does not regenerate or easily mend after heart damage. These are diseases that will affect people for a lifetime.”

More than 380 million people globally have been infected with the virus since the pandemic started.

“Consequently, COVID-19 infections have, thus far, contributed to 15 million new cases of heart disease worldwide,” said Al-Aly, who treats patients within the VA St. Louis Health Care System. “This is quite significant. For anyone who has had an infection, it is essential that heart health be an integral part of post-acute COVID care.”

Cardiovascular disease — an umbrella term that refers to various heart conditions, thrombosis and stroke — is the leading cause of death in the United States and the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one out of every four Americans dies of heart disease each year.

Additionally, heart disease comes with a hefty price tag, according to the CDC, costing the U.S. about $363 billion each year in healthcare services, medications and productivity lost to death.

“For people who were clearly at risk for a heart condition before becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2, the findings suggest that COVID-19 may amplify the risk,” said Al-Aly, who is also director of the Clinical Epidemiology Center and chief of the Research and Education Service at the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System.

“But most remarkably, people who have never had any heart problems and were considered low risk are also developing heart problems after COVID-19,” he added. “Our data showed an increased risk of heart damage for young people and old people; males and females; Blacks, whites and all races; people with obesity and people without; people with diabetes and those without; people with prior heart disease and no prior heart disease; people with mild COVID infections and those with more severe COVID who needed to be hospitalized for it.”

COVID heart conditions