How Heart Disease Increases Our Risk From COVID-19
Coronavirus coverage is everywhere, but between all the talk of case numbers, social distancing and flattening the curve, what you might have missed is just how dangerous COVID-19 is for people with existing heart conditions. In New York, 86% of all deaths had some other underlying illness or comorbidity. Heart disease is one of the most common of these co-morbidities, so it's especially important to understand your health and your risk.
How COVID-19 attacks the body
For the purposes of this article, we're going to take a broader look at how COVID-19 affects your body. Coronavirus cells infiltrate the lungs and damage the small sacs that are responsible for taking carbon dioxide out of your blood and replenishing them with fresh oxygen. These sacs start to fill with liquid, which further reduces their capacity. This is why COVID-19 patients have difficulty breathing.
In the most severe cases, the sacs get so full of liquid that they rupture, sending the poisonous fluid into the rest of the body. This can cause septic shock and, ultimately, death.
If you would like to see a full, detailed breakdown of how the coronavirus works, there is an excellent visual guide here.
The Lung & Heart Connection
Your lungs, blood vessels and heart all work together to get oxygen to your body. The lungs take in air and then filter the oxygen into your blood. The heart then pumps the oxygenated blood throughout the body through arteries. Once the blood is depleted, it returns to the heart through the veins and, eventually back through the lungs again.
Heart disease, also known as cardiovascular disease, usually doesn't involve any damage to the heart itself, but rather the blood vessels that carry oxygenated blood throughout the body. For example, coronary artery disease refers to the major blood vessels that bring blood into the heart. Carotid artery disease involves the large arteries on your neck that take blood to your brain. In both of these diseases, arterial plaque builds up in the blood vessels, restricting their flow, increasing your blood pressure and forcing your heart to work harder to get blood to your body.
Since we know that the coronavirus restricts the lungs' ability to get oxygen into the blood, having another condition that prevents the flow of that oxygenated blood is going to create a domino effect where your body is simply overwhelmed. All you have to do is take a look at the state of New York's COVID-19 Tracker to see the top 10 comorbidities within the state, which include hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, coronary artery disease and atrial fibrillation.
Monitoring Your Health
As we age, we become increasingly susceptible to almost every kind of heart disease. That's one of the main reasons the elderly population has been the hardest hit during this pandemic. Now it is more important than ever to make sure you are aware of your current health and your risk for heart disease. Thomas M. Burton, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, lived a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise and a good diet, yet was completely shocked when he found out his carotid artery was clogged with plaque after a Life Line Screening scan.
You can read Mr. Burton's full story right here
During one of these scans, a trained technician uses an ultrasound machine to take a scan of all the major arteries in the body. This allows them to see any plaque buildup that can serve as a warning sign for carotid artery disease, coronary artery disease, heart attacks and stroke. These scans are quick, painless and noninvasive.
Unfortunately, with many states on complete lockdown right now, Life Line Screening isn't able to conduct the usual in-person tests. While there is no way to do an ultrasound scan yourself, there are a couple of at-home tests that can give you a better picture of your cardiovascular health. These "panels" are groups of tests that help assess risk and provide critical health information, and the at-home test kits include everything you need to administer the simple finger stick blood test to yourself and mail your test back to the lab, including instructions.
The Complete Lipid Panel measures triglyceride and the two different types of cholesterol found in your blood: HDLs (High-Density Lipoproteins) and LDLs (Low-Density Lipoproteins). LDLs are considered "bad" because they deposit cholesterol into the lining of your arteries, causing buildups. HDLs, on the other hand, are "good cholesterol" because they actively remove that same cholesterol, keeping your blood vessels healthy.
Knowing your numbers will go a long way toward understanding the current health of your circulatory system and your risk of developing heart disease.
The A1c Panel measures the level of glucose in your blood over the past three months, which gives you an indicator of your risk of developing diabetes. While diabetes can be dangerous or manageable depending on the case, diabetes also appears on the list of 10 most common comorbidities we referenced earlier. If you are showing warning signs of potentially developing diabetes, changes in diet and exercise can help significantly in reducing your risk.
These at-home test kits offer security and convenience at a time when going anywhere in public could present a risk, let alone a doctor's office or hospital. In addition to the Complete Lipid Panel and A1c Panel, Life Line Screening offers at-home tests in the categories of Health & Wellness, Sexual Health, Ancestry / DNA, Men's Health, and Women's Health.
Ultimately, the best thing to do is take every precaution to prevent catching the coronavirus in the first place. Wash your hands regularly, avoid public gatherings as much as possible and maintain social distance. In the meantime, while we wait for the world to return to normal, it's important to stay on top of our health like we normally would so that we can enjoy a high quality of life for years to come.