I've been right about COVID-19 for 20 years. At least, about the worst damage it can cause.
You see, I've pounded the table on this ever since I was in medical school: Inflammation is the basis of most diseases of aging.
That includes heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and more.
I knew when I learned about the cholesterol model that something didn't add up. I've argued since then that inflammation was the true basis of heart disease, not cholesterol. Over the years, the evidence for my argument has grown – including this horrifying statistic: Half of the folks who experience a heart attack actually have normal or low cholesterol numbers.
And all that inflammation comes from several causes, like a sedentary lifestyle, poor diet (think high in trans fats), and behaviors like smoking.
But there's another big source of inflammation which brings me back to my first point about COVID-19: Infections.
Infections from viruses, including coronaviruses, ramp up inflammation. That puts pressure on our blood vessels and can lead to heart attacks and damage to the heart muscle itself.
And now, there are new reports about COVID-19 infections leading to increases in heart damage and heart attacks.
One study out of Zhengzhou University reported in early March, COVID-19 targets ACE2 receptors, many of which appear in the cardiovascular system. The researchers pointed out that folks who survived a similar coronavirus-borne illness, Middle East respiratory syndrome ("MERS"), had high rates of heart problems as a result.
And a brand-new case report from Italy highlights what we're seeing now: a healthy 53-year-old with COVID-19 had swelling in the sac surrounding his heart and reduced heart function.
Most of the reports are still individual case studies. But I suspect when more folks start to enter the recovery and virus-free phases, we're going to start seeing a lot more cases of heart disease. The reason? We've seen this year after year with flu season...
A 2018 paper confirmed my theory of linking infections like the flu with heart attacks. The paper, which appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, looked at documented cases of the flu with proper laboratory confirmation. Researchers then looked at these patients over the course of a year prior to their diagnosis of flu and a year after.
What they found is that for the seven-day period after a flu diagnosis, people are six times more likely to suffer a heart attack. That was regardless of any present risk factors for heart disease.
That's extremely important, particularly for people who already have a higher risk of heart attack due to other factors. For instance, one in three adults has high blood pressure... which is one of the key risk factors for heart attack and stroke.
Keep in mind that risk factors alone like blood pressure, obesity, and smoking don't wholly determine if you will have a heart attack. But the increased risk is still present... and makes it more dangerous should you get the flu or the coronavirus.
As we've written before, the increase in inflammation you see during an infection like the flu puts a strain on your heart. It can constrict blood vessels and lead to blockages resulting in heart attacks or strokes.
Looking at the numbers, you might not realize it, either. That's because we've seen a drop in heart attack patients. The reason? They're either staying home out of fear of contracting COVID-19 at the hospital (don't do this – go straight to the ER if you suspect you're having one), or the docs aren't filling out the death certificates accurately.
We've seen a few physicians claim that death certificates may just state "COVID-19" as the cause of death, instead of as a contributing factor. So if you die, was it from the infection itself? Or was it the heart attack that killed you? That's why if you already have cardiac risk factors, you need to be extra careful to stay healthy and safe from COVID-19.
And here's another reason to continue to take precautions: this infection can also cause silent heart disease to appear.
Maybe you've already had a silent heart attack, or maybe you have high blood pressure and don't know it. You could be one of those folks who don't have any warnings of heart disease until you're hit with a full-blown heart attack.
So in addition to washing our hands and wearing a mask around other people, make sure you aren't neglecting your heart health. Exercise, eating right, and managing your stress will all protect you right now, too. Do what I do and follow my best advice for heart health – you can read about it in my February 2019 and April 2019 issues of Retirement Millionaire. If you aren't a subscriber, click here for access.
What We're Reading...
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
April 21, 2020