A recent study found that heart attacks in people ages 25 to 44 increased by 30% compared to the expected number over the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Demi Washington, a basketball player at Vanderbilt University came down with COVID-19 in late 2020, her symptoms were mild, just a runny nose. But to ensure her safe return to the court, the school required her to undergo an MRI.
Following the infection, the now college senior had developed myocarditis — when the heart muscle becomes inflamed, which can decrease the heart’s ability to pump blood. The condition can lead to stroke or heart attack, according to Mayo Clinic. Washington was not vaccinated against COVID-19 at the time.
“I was scared because any internal organ, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I need that to live,'” she recalled to TODAY. “I didn’t really know what was going to come of it, how long was it going to take for it to resolve.”
Washington had to skip the rest of the 2020 to 2021 season, but ultimately she was grateful. “I think about the fact that Vanderbilt does do the MRI and a lot of other schools didn’t,” she told TODAY in a segment aired Feb. 9. “The fact that I could have played if we didn’t is hard and scary to think about.”
Washington’s doctor never told her that she was at risk of dying, but he did stress the importance of rest and keeping her heart rate under a certain pace. She had to wear a watch to track her activity. Even though COVID was especially new at the time, Washington said her doctor felt confident her condition was due to the coronavirus, as he’d seen something similar other college athletes.
Washington said she felt no symptoms or signs that her heart had become inflamed, nor did she have a genetic predisposition. “It (just) happened to be me,” she said. “I still don’t really know why.”
Washington has since recovered and is back to playing ball. But her experience sheds light on the thousands of young adults infected with COVID-19 whose health hasn’t rebounded as successfully.
COVID-19, heart attacks and young people
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, heart attack deaths across all age groups have become more common in the U.S., according to a September 2022 study by Cedars Sinai hospital in Los Angeles.
The age group hit the hardest? People between 25 and 44, who saw a 29.9% relative increase in heart attack deaths over the first two years of the pandemic (which means the actual number of heart attack deaths were almost 30% higher than the predicted number).
“Young people are obviously not really supposed to die of heart attack. They’re not really supposed to have heart attacks at all,” Dr. Susan Cheng, a cardiologist at Cedars Sinai and co-author of the study, told TODAY in a segment aired Feb. 9.
Adults between 45 and 64 saw a 19.6% relative increase in heart attack deaths, and those 65 and older saw a 13.7% relative increase, according to a press release from Cedars Sinai. The increase in U.S. heart attack deaths continued through the omicron surge, even though the variant is thought to cause milder illness, and spikes of heart attack deaths have aligned with the timing of COVID-19 surges in the U.S.