JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — If you have underlying heart issues, you need to take COVID-19 seriously. That’s the message from the American Heart Association. The organization says it appears people over the age of 65 with coronary heart disease or hypertension are more likely to develop more severe symptoms.

Reports show people with high blood pressure, heart disease or who have survived a stroke may be more vulnerable to the coronavirus’s effects with mortality rates two to three times higher than the general population.

“That report and others suggests people who have structural heart disease either because of hypertension which causes a stiffening of heart over many years or because of blocked arteries in the heart may have less reserve capacity, meaning that when they get a viral infection their body's ability to respond to that infection is limited,” Dr. Leslie Cooper, Chair of Cardiology at Mayo Clinic in Florida, said. “Those people are at higher risk of complications and mortality from the virus.”

The AHA is committing $2.5 million to fast-tracked research efforts to better understand the coronavirus as it relates to heart and brain health with the goal of developing more effective treatments quickly, potentially within the next six to eight months.

“The virus can infect heart muscle cells and cause a disease called myocarditis,” Dr. Cooper explained. “Myocarditis is particularly common in younger individuals who have normal hearts and normal lungs and that’s a separate somewhat less common manifestation of COVID-19 infection.”

Dr. Cooper said it’s important to remember that the virus can live on surfaces for some time so avoid touching your face especially after you touch things like doorknobs.

“People who have risk factors for heart disease and established heart disease should exercise caution by washing their hands frequently, avoiding large groups and social distancing, and if they do develop a cough or fever, they should contact their doctor promptly,” Dr. Cooper said.

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