COVID-19 infection waves linked to spikes in heart attack deaths
New research from Cedars-Sinai has found over the course of the pandemic heart attack deaths have spiked alongside COVID-19 infection waves. The findings cannot causally link the increases in heart attacks to COVID, however, the research is far from the first to suggest SARS-CoV-2 infections can harm heart health.
The new study looked at more than 1.5 million heart attack deaths across the 10 years leading up to March 2022. The analysis focused on calculating how many more heart attack deaths occurred during the pandemic above the expected average amount established before 2020. This is known as studying "excess deaths."
Overall the researchers detected a rise in heart attack deaths across the first and second years of the pandemic. But perhaps most interestingly, those spikes in heart attack deaths between 2020 and 2022 correlated with several major COVID-19 infection waves. Basically, there were more heart attack deaths when more SARS-CoV-2 infections were around.
The data also showed excess heart attack deaths increased into 2021 and continued to stay elevated across the Omicron wave into 2022, despite the general assumption that Omicron was a less virulent coronavirus variant. The greatest relative rise in heart attack deaths was observed in young adults aged 25 to 44, with a 29.9% increase above the expected average.
“The dramatic rise in heart attacks during the pandemic has reversed what was a prior decade long steady improvement in cardiac deaths,” explained first author on the new study, Yee Hui Yeo. “We are still learning the many ways by which COVID-19 affects the body, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or race.”
The researchers are cautious to avoid directly linking these excess heart attack deaths specifically to COVID-19. The data analyzed does not offer specific details on each case and COVID status, so the researchers can only speculate as to why there were spikes in heart attack deaths at these particular times.
Of course, there is certainly a large body of published evidence linking COVID-19 to heart disease and inflammation. So it's not implausible to hypothesize infections play a role in increasing heart disease risk. Nevertheless, the researchers do suggest other factors could also be playing a role, such as increased psychological stress and social challenges influencing heart health.
“There is something very different about how this virus affects the cardiac risks,” said co-corresponding author Susan Cheng. “The difference is likely due to a combination of stress and inflammation, arising from predisposing factors and the way this virus biologically interacts with the cardiovascular system.”
The new study was published in the Journal of Medical Virology.