‘Long COVID’ sufferers may have heart damage if battling shortness of breath a year later

JETTE, Belgium — People with “long COVID” may have suffered heart damage if they are still struggling to breathe during exercise a year on, researchers warn. Medical scans show patients who experience breathlessness a year after leaving hospital are more likely to experience cardiovascular problems, even if they never have before.

There is increasing evidence that coronavirus and its long-lasting symptoms such as shortness of breath, also known as dyspnoea, could cause heart issues. Belgian scientists have confirmed that those long COVID symptoms could be linked to the toll the virus takes on people’s hearts.

New scanning techniques could help identify patients who are at risk of developing long COVID after being infected.

“The findings could help to explain why some patients with long COVID still experience breathlessness one year later and indicate that it might be linked to a decrease in heart performance,” says study author Dr. Maria-Luiza Luchian, of University Hospital Brussels in Belgium, in a statement.

Shortness of breath from long COVID linked to heart problems?

Researchers examined data from 66 patients without previous heart or lung disease who were hospitalized with COVID-19 between March and April 2020. The patients’ lung capacity and longterm COVID symptoms were assessed a year after being discharged from hospital using special x-ray equipment known as chest computed tomography. Ultrasounds and a more modern imaging technique known as myocardial work were also carried out to examine patients’ heart health.

Scans of patients who continued to be short of breath a year after being hospitalized with COVID showed greater heart damage, the researchers report.

“Our study shows that more than a third of COVID-19 patients with no history of heart or lung disease had persistent dyspnoea on effort a year after discharge from hospital,” says Dr. Luchian. “When looking in detail at heart function by cardiac ultrasound, we observed subtle abnormalities that might explain the continued breathlessness.”

According to the American Academy of Physical and Rehabilitation, approximately 10% to 30% of Americans with COVID report having at least one symptom after six months.

New imaging techniques like myocardial work could help doctors keep an eye on people’s heart health after recovering from COVID.

“Myocardial work could be a new echocardiographic tool for early identification of heart function abnormalities in patients with long COVID-19, who might need more frequent and long-term cardiac surveillance,” says Dr. Luchian. “Future studies including different COVID-19 variants and the impact of vaccination are needed to confirm our results on the long-term evolution and possible cardiac consequences of this disease.”

The findings were presented at EuroEcho 2021, a scientific congress of the European Society of Cardiology.

South West News Service writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.