We’ve learned a lot about how SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—affects our respiratory system. But as we learn more about the virus and its physiological consequences, it’s becoming clear that COVID-19’s effects may go beyond the lungs. With its demonstrated—sometimes long-lasting—effects on the heart and blood vessels, COVID-19 may be just as much a cardiovascular disease as a respiratory one. (Yes, you read that right.)
SARS-CoV-2 binds to a receptor (called ACE2) in our cardiovascular system that plays a role in high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases. ACE2 gives the virus access to our vascular system, where it can cause inflammation in our blood vessels.
We know a lot about what happens during a COVID-19 infection. But we don’t know much about long-term health problems that people who have had COVID-19 might have. The authors of a new study—published in the American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology—asked just that: Does being infected with COVID-19 have lasting effects on blood vessel health and function that stick around even after you’re virus-free?
Two groups of young adults were examined: one group who had previously tested positive for COVID-19 and another group who had never tested positive for COVID-19. The researchers looked at different measures of blood vessel function in both groups. The infected group had less dilation of the blood vessels, reduced blood flow and higher arterial stiffness (which can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke) than the never-infected group. This means that overall people with a previous COVID-19 infection had worse blood vessel function.
These results are concerning because they show us that even in young healthy adults with no preexisting disease conditions, infection with COVID-19 seems to impair blood vessel health. Not only can COVID-19 pose short-term health risks, but it may also increase long-term risk for cardiovascular disease.
While pre- and post-COVID-19 measures of blood vessel health would provide more information, this would be hard, if not impossible, to do because you cannot predict who will get COVID-19 and when. Nonetheless, this study still provides us with invaluable insight into the mysterious nature of COVID-19 and could help design treatments, such as exercise, to restore blood vessel health in those who have been previously infected.
There is surely more to be learned about this novel virus. As the fight continues to pose questions, science will continue to provide answers.
Brady Holmer is a PhD student in exercise physiology at the University of Florida. His lab focuses on cardiovascular physiology; mainly how exercise can play a role in health, disease and aging. Holmer hosts a podcast called “Science & Chill,” where he sits down with scientists in the fields of physiology, biology, health and nutrition to discuss their work.