Experts worry stress, loss of routines amid pandemic is exacerbating heart disease

The nation just marked a grim milestone: 500,000 Americans lost to COVID-19. As troubling as that number is, this wasn’t the leading cause of death last year: 655,000 people died from heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What worries experts is that those numbers are getting worse because of the pandemic.

“I know that I just sit around and watch TV and eat, eat, eat, sleep, wake up, eat, eat, eat, sleep and I know it is going to catch up with me,” said Tajonna Hyppolite of Dedham

Hyppolite is like a lot of people working from home, tossing routines out the window in the age of COVID-19. “The fact that that I don’t keep up with my yoga, I don’t keep up with my run, or I don’t have my smoothies like I used to, it does bother me,” she said. “Because I know that my shape could change at any time, or you know, my health.”

But as the pandemic grinds on, motivation can be in short supply. Studies have found many Americans drinking and snacking more while exercising less.

One shopper in Dedham told Boston 25 News “I do think that I watch too much TV – computers - and iPads – and everything!”

None of those are good for maintaining a healthy heart if they’re done in excess.

Dr. Ami Bhatt, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a member of the board directors at the American Heart Association, said another risk factor — stress — is on the rise.

“We know that stress is bad for heart disease. We know that anxiety and depression track with heart disease, and we have seen all of the psychiatric disorders and emotional states have gotten worse because of the pandemic.”

The big question is if the impact of a more sedentary lifestyle is reversible.

“I don’t know that we know that yet,” said Bhatt. “We’ve not had a global pandemic in many, many years.”

“I think the good part is, again, 80 percent of these risk factors are modifiable,” Bhatt said, “so we can get our controls back. We can get our hands back of the reins of cardiovascular disease.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, it actually appeared cardiac episodes like heart attacks and strokes were down, according to Bhatt. “It turns out people were simply staying home. So, when we looked at the numbers again, it turned out that at-home deaths and at-home events are increasing significantly.”

The American Heart Association recently launched a new campaign, “Don’t Die of Doubt”. The goal is to encourage people not to ignore routine care or the signs of an emergency.

But for many people, the best medicine might be to put the remote down and head outside for a brisk walk.

Bhatt said she’s particularly concerned about women not getting the right care. She says many women believe men are more prone to cardiovascular disease and don’t the help they need early enough.

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