The COVID-19 pandemic may be taking a toll on Americans' heart health even if they're not infected with the virus: According to research published Thursday in JAMA Open Network, cases of broken heart syndrome are on the rise among people without the illness.
The condition, which is distinct from a heart attack, goes by several names, including stress cardiomyopathy and takotsubo syndrome. It occurs when part of the heart becomes enlarged and is unable to pump blood effectively. Unlike a heart attack, which is caused by clogged arteries, broken heart syndrome is preceded by intense emotional or physical stress.
"The increase in socioeconomic and psychological stress from the pandemic has literally increased stress cardiomyopathy," said one of the study's co-authors, Dr. Ankur Kalra, an interventional cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic.
"This is not the health hazard from the virus" itself, said Kalra, who is also the section head for cardiovascular research at Cleveland Clinic Akron General. "This is a new health hazard which the pandemic has caused because of other stressors that the pandemic has caused."
In the study, researchers looked at the medical records of 1,914 patients at two hospitals in the Cleveland Clinic health system from five eight-week periods, four of which occurred before the pandemic and the other since then. Before the pandemic, there were, on average, five to 12 cases in an eight-week period, but in the cohort observed during the pandemic, the number rose to 20.
Dr. Harmony Reynolds, director of the Sarah Ross Soter Center for Women's Cardiovascular Research at NYU Langone Health, called the findings interesting.
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"Certainly, this pandemic is a big reason for emotional stress," said Reynolds, who was not involved with the new research.
Lynn Bufka, a psychologist who is senior director of the American Psychological Association, said the rise in broken heart syndrome is concerning but not surprising. "We have known for a long time that the experience of stress has an impact on the body," she said.
Symptoms of broken heart syndrome can be similar to those of a heart attack, including chest pain and shortness of breath, according to the American Heart Association. Both chest pain and shortness of breath can also be symptoms of COVID-19.
Broken heart syndrome is usually treatable, and patients typically recover within a month or two, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Experts urged people to go to the hospital if they feel sick, despite the surge in coronavirus cases in some parts of the country.
"I just worry that people will stay home because they're afraid to be treated," Reynolds said. "And that is, coming to the hospital is safe, and it's very important."
Kalra said: "When you think you need to seek care, you should seek care. You should not brush it under the carpet just because there's a pandemic happening."