For more than two years, the direct harm of the pandemic has been visible in overflowing intensive care wards and grim statistics. Now, some of its indirect effects are coming into focus.
Studies are linking the pandemic to higher rates of fatal heart disease and stroke, deaths from addiction-related problems and more. The exact causes of tFor more than two years, the direct harm of the pandemic has been visible in overflowing intensive care wards and grim statistics.hese connections are still being determined, experts say, but the effects may be long-lasting.
With heart health, part of the problem is that people often avoided or delayed treatment because of COVID-19 fears, says Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, a cardiologist, epidemiologist and chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
“People lost touch with their usual sources of health care,” says Lloyd-Jones, president of the American Heart Association. “And we saw dramatic differences in blood pressure control rates, in diabetes control rates. People just weren’t able to check in with their doctor and know their numbers and make sure that those things were under control.”
The harm from such delayed care is not just short-term, he adds. “It’s going to last and have ripple effects for years to come.”
Increased death rates during the pandemic
Lloyd-Jones was co-author on a study published recently in JAMA Network Open that showed after years of trending down, the risk of dying from heart disease or stroke spiked in 2020 – the first year of the pandemic. Even after adjusting for the aging population, the risk of dying from heart disease rose 4.3%, and 6.4% for stroke. The increases were highest among Black people, who had double the risk of dying from stroke and a fivefold higher risk of dying from heart disease than white people.
The study says likely factors included hospital overcrowding, fewer visits for medical care, poorer medication adherence and increased barriers to healthy lifestyle behaviors.
That finding was just one of several about increased death rates during the first year of the pandemic.
A JAMA Neurology study of Medicare enrollees age 65 and older found an increase in the risk of death from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease from March through December of 2020. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found Black and Hispanic women died at a higher rate during or shortly after pregnancy in 2020 than in 2019. Deaths related to alcohol and drug overdoses also rose, research shows.
Dr. Patricia Best, an interventional cardiologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, says the statistics reflect the overwhelming challenges hospitals faced from waves of COVID-19 patients.
For example, “there were issues with transport, where people weren’t able to be moved from an ambulance into a hospital because