GREAT FALLS — February is American Heart Month, a time that the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention says is a prime opportunity for everyone to focus on their cardiovascular health. Benefis Health System in Great Falls is hoping to use that to buck some concerning trends that have developed over the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic took over the medical world.
“During the COVID pandemic, what we have been seeing is that patients are frequently delaying their care,” said Benefis cardiologist Michael Eisenhauer. “By that, they’re not coming to the doctor’s office on a timely basis. As a result of that, we’re seeing patients ignore their symptoms of a potential heart attack, which worsens their outcomes, it raises their risk of heart failure, it raises their risk of not surviving the event. We have noticed that we’ve had 15% fewer patients in the clinic show up for their routine appointments, largely because they’re staying home. We have noticed a 10% drop-off in the number of heart surgeries we’ve done in the last year. Even with those reductions, the number of heart attacks, however, has stayed roughly the same.”
A recent report from the CDC found that average life expectancy at birth in the United States dropped by a full year during the first half of 2020. The change was even more drastic among the country’s non-Hispanic black population. An excerpt from the report reads: “Provisional life expectancy at birth in the first half of 2020 was the lowest level since 2006 for both the total population (77.8 years) and for males (75.1), and was the lowest level since 2007 for females (80.5). Life expectancy for the non-Hispanic black population, 72.0, declined the most, and was the lowest estimate seen since 2001 (for the black population regardless of Hispanic origin).”
Dr. Eisenhauer estimates that at least part of that decline is due to more people developing heart problems after contracting COVID-19. He also added that while the medical world still has a lot to learn about the effect that Coronavirus has on a person’s heart, health experts have already seen proof that there is some causality between the two.
“We are starting to see some heart failure, we are starting to see some arrhythmias, we don’t really yet know how big of a problem that is,” he explained. “We also really don’t know yet how best to treat it, or how long those symptoms may persist, but there are guidelines coming out, there are registries in place, research is being done to try to answer those questions.”
He went on to say that if a person has recovered from COVID-19, but they are still struggling to return to a “normal” feeling, it would be in their best interest to seek medical evaluation and determine whether they might be experiencing COVID myocardial/heart involvement, or COVID pulmonary/long-term involvement. Essentially whether they might be experiencing or at higher risk of a heart attack or high blood pressure as a result of contracting COVID-19.
Benefis is planning to use American Heart Month to raise awareness about the warning signs, symptoms, and appropriate reactions to heart issues that may sometimes be overlooked, especially if someone is avoiding trips to the doctor out of fear of contracting COVID-19.
“We have been participating in social media, and so we’ve done some recent health sessions,” said Dr. Eisenhauer. “We have a pretty close working relationship with the American Heart Association, both in terms of prevention, but also we track regularly our heart attack rates, we track our performance in terms of how quickly we can treat patients once they arrive to the emergency room. We do all these things, those quality metrics, to try to improve our outcomes to help patients do better with their heart attack. In fact, we are an award-winning program for timeliness of care. We really strive to do the right thing at the right time, for the right reasons, and get it done quickly, knowing that that improved patients’ outcomes, and that’s where it’s at.”
The five major risk factors for heart and vascular diseases are high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, tobacco use, and family history. Some of the common signs and symptoms of a heart attack include chest pain, especially if the feeling is new or different than normal, shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, and discomfort in other areas of your upper body.