In a rare instance of good news when it comes to the long-term effects of COVID-19, a new study published in the journal JACC: Cardiovascular Imaging has found that people who recover from mild COVID-19 show no signs of lasting heart damage.
While most media coverage of COVID-19 has understandably focused on the risks linked to severe disease — including severe respiratory problems, organ damage, and death — some attention has turned recently to the long-term problems linked to moderate and even mild cases of the viral infection. Research has shown that people who recover from COVID-19 have a much higher risk for depression in the months following their initial infection, with more severe disease linked to a higher depression risk. COVID-19 is also linked to a variety of other health problems following the initial phase of the disease, including respiratory illnesses, nervous system and neurocognitive disorders, cardiovascular disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, musculoskeletal pain, and fatigue. People who initially survive COVID-19 are also almost 60% more likely to die of all causes within six months, and are dramatically more likely to develop diabetes during that window of time.
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For the latest study, researchers looked at a group of 731 healthcare workers from three hospitals who were regularly tested for COVID-19 during the “first wave” of the pandemic over four months in 2020. A total of 157 study participants, or 21.5%, tested positive for COVID-19 during that period. Six months after they tested positive for COVID-19, 74 participants underwent a variety of medical tests to look for cardiovascular problems and heart damage, as did 75 participants who never tested positive for COVID-19 to serve as a control (comparison) group. The average age of the final study group was 37, with participants ranging in age from 18 to 63. Researchers analyzed the results of cardiovascular tests and measurements without knowing which participants had had COVID-19, and used artificial intelligence to help with this process.
Cardiac abnormalities no more common in those who had mild COVID-19
Based on cardiovascular magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), there was no difference between the COVID-19 and control groups in cardiac structure or function over a wide range of measured parameters, including the volume and mass of various heart structures. There were also no differences between the two groups in a number of blood markers used to evaluate heart function. What’s more, when the researchers defined outlying measurements — those furthest away from the average — based on an analysis of only the control group, they found that these outlying measurements were distributed equally between the COVID-19 and control groups.
The researchers concluded that cardiac abnormalities were no more common in people six months after developing mild COVID-19 than in similar people who didn’t develop the viral infection. It’s important to note, though, that these findings apply only to people who were healthy enough to continue working in a healthcare setting, and that a similar analysis of different populations of people could potentially lead to different results.
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