Covid’s impact on mental health has made almost as many headlines as its physical effects. What’s been less documented is the role stress and anxiety play on our hearts, which in turn increases our risk of experiencing more severe symptoms.
As the globe marks World Heart Day on Wednesday, the country’s Heart and Stroke Foundation is appealing to residents to remain alert to signs and risk factors associated with one of Antigua and Barbuda’s biggest killers.
Foundation president and consultant cardiologist Dr Georgette Meade says she has seen a significant uptick in the number of patients reporting stress and anxiety, resulting in palpitations and dangerously elevated blood pressure.
“Many persons are not sleeping well which can contribute to high blood pressure. Stress in itself causes an elevation in blood pressure and also the heart rate – none of which is beneficial for the heart,” she explains.
“An elevated heart rate for a persistent period of time can lead to cardiac dysfunction. It reduces the strength of contraction of the heart muscle which is pretty dangerous as it can progress to heart failure.
“Elevated blood pressure can also cause an enlargement in the heart muscle and increase pressure within the heart itself which can then lead to heart failure,” Dr Meade warns.
Exacerbating the situation, she says, is that patients diagnosed with high blood pressure – also known as hypertension – are often in denial that they have the condition.
“Once diagnosed, some people don’t want to accept they’re hypertensive and so it allows the blood pressure to be elevated uncontrolled. That can lead to heart failure, heart attacks and also affect the kidneys and brain leading to stroke,” she explains.
In addition to hypertension, risk factors for heart disease include diabetes, high cholesterol, being overweight, eating a poor diet with too much fried food, and smoking.
World Heart Day is marked annually on September 29. This year’s theme is ‘use heart to connect’ which aims to put a spotlight on actions we can all take to stay connected with others and raise awareness of heart health at the same time.
“We are encouraging everyone to reach out to loved ones who might be feeling alone, especially those in quarantine,” Dr Meade says.
“Some of my patients who’ve been infected with Covid said isolation had the most significant impact on them. So we need to let those around us know that we care and that they have our support.
“Social media plays an important part in that. It’s also a great way to share information about heart disease.”
Dr Meade’s final piece of advice for residents across the nation is simple: get the Covid jab.
“We are also encouraging persons to get vaccinated. For patients with heart disease, it’s especially recommended because if they get Covid, the risk of death is high,” she adds.
Fellow Foundation board member Valerie Gonsalves-Barreiro MM is reminding the public of the group’s tagline ‘mind your heart’.
“It’s all too easy to let your daily regimen slip and not take your prescribed heart medications,” she warns.
“The pandemic has brought a lot of stress, many people are feeling scared and anxious. And that makes it all the more important to follow your doctor’s advice and make sure your heart is well taken care of.”
The Heart and Stroke Foundation was established in February 2020 to act as a voice and support system for patients and their families, raise funds, stage community events, and conduct local research into the prevalence of heart disease and stroke.
Cardiovascular diseases – such as heart disease and stroke – remain the leading cause of death worldwide, claiming almost 18 million lives each year.