Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, heart disease was the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And we now know that in some people, even a mild case of COVID-19 can lead to heart problems. Here’s what you should know.

What’s the connection between COVID-19 and heart disease?

Researchers are still trying to figure out what it all means, but the data is concerning. According to the American Heart Association, nearly a quarter of all hospitalized COVID-19 patients show signs of heart problems, and 40% of COVID deaths are attributable to heart damage. But in a study of 100 recovered COVID-19 patients, most of whom were never hospitalized, 78% showed heart abnormalities, and 60% had ongoing inflammation in the heart.

Experts stress that the implications are not clear. It’s possible that the damage may reverse itself over time, or it may be treatable with medication. But the pandemic is still relatively new, so we will need long-term studies to figure out who might be at higher risk and the best courses of action.

Surprising ways to improve your heart health overall

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to improve your overall heart health and reduce the risks of serious heart-related complications:

  • Just 10 minutes per day can help.
  • A few times per day, lift a hardcover book over your head, alternating arms.
  • Sure, you should consistently get enough vitamins and minerals. But it’s okay to start small, with just one extra serving per day.
  • A handful of nuts is excellent for heart health. They’re easy to swap for a bag of chips or to toss in a salad.
  • Substituting fish or other seafood for red meat in just one meal per day can boost your health overall, including your heart.
  • Spend a few minutes each day just breathing deeply and slowly. This can lower your blood pressure and help you relax.
  • Take time to count your blessings daily. The positive feelings you generate can lower your risks of high blood pressure and heart disease.

Coping with COVID-19

If you do come down with COVID-19, try not to panic. For most people, shortness of breath is an unpleasant but fairly transitory symptom. Call your doctor for specific advice, especially if you are older or have any underlying health conditions. You may qualify for certain treatments, or your doctor may recommend entering the hospital for observation.

If you’re riding it out at home, consider getting a pulse oximeter. This easy-to-use tool clips onto your fingertip to measure the oxygen saturation of your blood. If it dips below 93% (or whatever reading your doctor recommends), it may be time to seek medical assistance. Low oxygen saturation is a risk to overall health, including raising your chances of heart problems.

Otherwise, focus on staying as heart-healthy as possible and monitoring yourself for any serious symptoms. Be sure to inform your doctor of infection, see them regularly, isolate yourself, following both CDC and local guidelines, and seek immediate medical care if you have any concerning signs or symptoms.