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The Pandemic Is Stressing Many of Our Hearts—Here’s What a Cardiologist Wants You To Know

Emily Laurence

Emily LaurenceJuly 23, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images/Thomas Tolstrup

Without question, virtually everyone has felt more stressed out since the start of COVID-19. First, there are the large, looming stressors like protecting yourself and loved ones from the virus, or finding the money to pay your bills after a layoff. Then, there are the minor ones like figuring out how to work Zoom or remember middle school math now that you’re expected to homeschool—and those minor stressors just keep piling on top of each other.

While you may be conscious of the fact that you’re feeling more stressed than usual, for a growing number of people, it’s actually become a potentially life-threatening, physical problem. A new study published in the journal Cardiology found that the pandemic is literally putting stress on our hearts. More specifically, the study looked at nearly 2,000 patients with acute coronary syndrome (ACS), which is an umbrella term for several conditions that happen when there is sudden reduced blood flow to the heart, says cardiologist Suzanne Steinbaum, MD.

“For some patients, an acute coronary syndrome can present as a heart attack with blockage of blood flow of the artery, causing damage to the heart muscle,” says Dr. Steinbaum. However, after comparing the symptoms and diagnoses of the ACS patients between those that occurred during COVID-19 and several other time periods, the study authors found there was a significant increase in one specific type of ACS called stress cardiomyopathy, aka “broken heart syndrome.”

Why? Well, people are feeling more stressed than ever—and stress isn’t good for your heart. Dr. Steinbaum says lower-income folks are at most risk for ACS such as stress cardiomyopathy during this time because, to be frank, they experience the most stress. “Socioeconomic status may also increase stress, especially if someone has been furloughed or lost their job because of the pandemic,” she says. “Socioeconomic status can also affect access to basic living necessities, medication, doctors and the ability to adopt healthy lifestyle changes,” she says—which further affects a person’s heart health.

How a person copes with stress can also impact their heart health; people might turn to increased alcohol consumption or up their processed snack intake as coping mechanisms. But those might backfire if gone unchecked, Dr. Steinbaum says. “Under these stressful situations, unhealthy behaviors may lead to an increase in risk factors, such as an increase in weight, elevated blood pressures, and an increase in sugars. These are all potent risks for acute coronary syndromes.”

According to Nieca Goldberg, MD, the medical director of New York University’s Women’s Heart Program, there are a few other reasons why the pandemic has led to an uptick in this type of heart condition. “People are delaying care because they are too scared to go to the hospital,” she says. “Also, some people have not taken their medications for high blood pressure or cholesterol.” Dr. Goldberg also adds that the pandemic may be making it harder for people to exercise or follow a healthy diet, lifestyle habits that are critical for heart health.

Of course there are very real reasons to feel stress right now, many of which aren’t controllable. But both experts say that you can control your lifestyle habits to an extent, and that will help decrease the risk for this type of heart condition. Beans, legumes, fruit, canned vegetables, and canned tuna are all foods linked to benefitting heart health that aren’t expensive. Exercise is important, too. Even if you can’t get to the gym right now, going for walks with your mask on when possible and safe are beneficial.

While managing stress often feels easier said than done, it’s an important part of heart health. “During times of heightened stress, it’s important to take moments in your day to practice mindfulness, physical activity, eating right, and getting enough sleep,” Dr. Steinbaum says. “Even though many of us are separate from our friends and family, make time to reach out and connect every day. We might feel isolated, but we need to remind ourselves that we are not alone. Find time every day to do something that helps with dealing with your stress.”

Dr. Steinbaum also urges people to not avoid medical care out of fears of the coronavirus. “You can still talk to your doctor online, by phone, e-mail, or use telemedicine if available,” she says. In-person visits for exams and procedures are still happening too—just make sure you wear a mask when you go.

Healthy routines have certainly been thrown for a loop this year, but this new report is a reminder that it’s more important than ever to find ways to minimize stress in your life. It’s advice worth taking, well, to heart.

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