Heart-related deaths rose sharply in first year of COVID pandemic, report shows

The annual pace of American deaths from cardiovascular causes accelerated during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic to the worst level since 2015, according to final figures collected this month by the American Heart Association.

In 2020, 928,741 US deaths were attributed to cardiovascular problems such as heart disease and stroke. The age-adjusted death rate also increased that year for the first time in a decade.

“COVID-19 has direct and indirect effects impacts on cardiovascular health. As we learned, the virus is associated with new clotting and inflammation. We also know that many people who have had new or existing heart disease and stroke symptoms are reluctant to seek medical attention,” said Dr. Michelle Albert, vice president of the association, in a press release announcing the annual publication compiled by the association and the National Institutes of Health.

Heart disease again accounted for the largest share of these deaths in 2020 at 41.2%, followed by stroke at 17.3%.

The report only adds to the evidence of the huge impact that the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Americans’ health and longevity. Previous findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded the worsening rate of deaths from heart disease in all demographic groups in 2020.

“Prior to 2020, death rates from heart disease had been declining among adults for decades, which was recognized by the CDC as one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the last century,” said Rebecca Woodruff of the CDC in a statement.

However, not all parts of the country were seeing rates consistently improve before the pandemic setback.

From 2011 to 2019, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics counted age-adjusted death rates from heart disease decreasing in just 15 states. Arkansas saw an increase and others saw a plateau in rates.

Large disparities also persist across demographic groups. More than half of men across all racial and ethnic groups had cardiovascular disease from 2017 to 2020, ranging from 51.2% of white men to 58.9% of black men.

Black women had the highest rates of cardiovascular disease of any group, at 59.0%, compared with 44.6% of white women, 38.5% of Asian women, and 37.3% of Hispanic women.

Cardiovascular deaths also saw the biggest increases in 2020 among Asians, blacks and Hispanics, the publication reported, appearing to mirror some of the hardest-hit communities in the initial wave of the pandemic.

However, the heart association authors acknowledged that this year’s report remains “demonstrably incomplete” in tracking risk and mortality from cardiovascular problems. There are no rates for racial and ethnic subgroups, nor for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

“Mischaracterizing or erasing the diversity of populations threatens our ability to understand the sociocultural determinants that contribute to differences and disparities in health and disease and to develop tailored strategies to improve the health of populations,” Dr. Nilay Shah and Dr. Yvonne Commodore-Mensah, two authors of the publication, wrote in a statement.

COVID-19 and the heart

Experts have long warned that common heart conditions like coronary artery disease were conclusively linked to a person’s increased risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19.

In turn, a COVID infection can also affect the cardiovascular system in a variety of ways, from damaging heart tissue to causing blood clots.

Studies have also pointed to worrying links between the pandemic and worsening risk factors that may underlie heart problems.

A study funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute found that blood pressure rose during the first year of the pandemic, after months of relatively unchanged readings.

COVID-19 has also led to major disruptions in medical care for routine issues. A study published by the CDC in June 2020 estimated that 41% of adults avoided medical care due to concerns about COVID-19.

“This has resulted in people experiencing more advanced stages of cardiovascular conditions and needing more acute or urgent treatment for what may have been manageable chronic conditions. And sadly, it appears to have cost the lives of many,” said Albert.

Heart-related deaths rose sharply in first year of COVID pandemic, report shows

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