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Heart Disease and Diabetes Pose Greater Risk for Severe COVID-19 Symptoms

American Heart Association

Why It Matters:

  • Heart disease and other existing medical conditions are associated with more severe COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Staying at home provides an opportunity to eat heart-healthy meals and keep active.
  • A heart-healthy diet and lifestyle can boost overall health and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the future.


A healthy heart is always essential, but especially during the current pandemic. People with heart disease and other medical conditions appear to be at higher risk for more severe symptoms or complications if they contract COVID-19.1, 2“As scientists continue to learn more about the virus …, a heart-healthy lifestyle can help in coping with coronavirus,” said Gina Lundberg, M.D., clinical director of the Emory Women’s Heart Center in Atlanta.

People with serious heart conditions, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, and obesity are among those at increased risk of severe illness with COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.1 Those with high blood pressure, immune system deficiencies, and lung disease and stroke survivors also might be at increased risk.3

“If you’re a heart patient, you’re more likely to have severe symptoms and less likely to be asymptomatic. And you can get very sick very quickly,” said Lundberg, a preventive cardiologist.

Some patients with COVID-19 experience racing heart beats, abnormal heart rhythms, congestion, and shortness of breath.2,4,5 Complications can include pneumonia and blood clotting.6


Aim for optimal heart health

To improve heart health, follow the American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7®, involving simple changes everyone can make. The seven steps are eating a nutritious diet, staying physically active, losing excess weight, managing blood pressure, controlling cholesterol, reducing blood sugar, and quitting smoking.

Some of Lundberg’s patients are now taking the opportunity to walk more in their neighborhoods or nearby parks and to eat more fruits, vegetables, and lean meats at home. One patient who previously traveled for business and frequently ate out lost 40 pounds over the past few months with a new at-home routine of healthy eating and exercise.

“It’s a much better strategy than sinking into excessive eating, drinking, and sedentary time during the COVID-19 shutdown,” Lundberg explained.

“Structure can be useful if you’re mostly staying home during the pandemic. Plan for nutritious meals at designated, convenient times,” suggested Linda Van Horn, Ph.D., chief of nutrition in the department of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “Ideally, every meal or snack should include a fruit or vegetable,” she said.

Look for seasonal fresh produce you enjoy, such as zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, and berries in summer. Other easy options: plums, apricots, apples, and oranges. If fruits are ripening too fast, consider washing, slicing, and freezing them for later to use in smoothies, breads, and yogurt, or to flavor a glass of still or sparkling water.

Reducing or eliminating restaurant eating can also help with healthy eating and losing weight.

“We all enjoy taking a break from cooking,” Van Horn said. “But home-prepared meals typically are more nutritious with fewer calories, salt, sugar, and fat. More nutrients and fiber can be added as a side dish or salad.”


Try something new — and healthy

“If you’re not accustomed to cooking, start by choosing a favorite meal. Look up the recipe online to learn the ingredients and preparation techniques, and then give it a whirl,” Van Horn suggested. You may be surprised how easy it is to become a budding chef.

Battle the urge to eat because of stress or boredom by instead having a glass of fruit-infused still or sparkling water, or a cup of hot tea or coffee. Remember to avoid sugar-sweetened beverages, which can contribute to weight gain. Another way to avoid mindless eating is to take a quick walk around the block and remind yourself your next meal is coming soon.

Manage stress to aid in boosting your overall health by trying activities like yoga and meditation. Stay socially connected. It’s possible to visit with family and friends while taking precautions to guard against spreading illness. Consider an online meetup. Or, organize a small gathering of neighbors or friends and set up folding chairs six feet apart outdoors.

“You can be with people. You just can’t be close up with people,” Lundberg pointed out. “Stay positive, be innovative, and find ways to do things that are safe.”


Check in with your doctor, check your heart disease risk

It’s also important to take prescribed medications and stay in touch with your regular doctor. Telemedicine appointments may be available to avoid visiting a clinic in person. To learn about managing your cholesterol and check your risk for heart disease and stroke, use the American Heart Association’s Check. Change. Control. Calculator™.

Heart disease and stroke can be fatal, but they're also among the costliest health problems, leading to medical bills, lost wages, and potentially disability.7 The total direct medical costs of cardiovascular disease are projected to increase to $749 billion by 2035.8

“Months from now, researchers will know even more about the coronavirus and how heart disease and many medical conditions interact with it,” Lundberg noted. As scientists continue their work, making lifestyle changes and striving for optimal heart health is a positive path we can all take now.


Things to Consider:

  • Focus on Life’s Simple 7 to improve heart health and possibly protect against severe COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Try to include a fruit or vegetable with every meal or snack for healthier eating.
  • Manage stress with daily walks, yoga, and meditation.


1 “People with Certain Medical Conditions,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 2020

2 “Coronavirus and the Heart,” The Harvard Gazette, April 2020

3 “Coronavirus Precautions for Patients and Others Facing Higher Risks,” American Heart Association, April 2020

4 “Symptoms of Coronavirus,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 2020

5 “Our Response to COVID-19,” American Heart Association, June 2020

6 “Coronavirus Blood-clot Mystery Intensifies,” Nature, May 2020

7 “Costs and Consequences,” U.S. Health and Human Services Department, February 2021

8 “2020 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistical Update Fact Sheet At-a-Glance,” American Heart Association, January 2020


This article was prepared by the American Heart Association (AHA). Transamerica is not affiliated with the AHA and does not control, guarantee, or endorse the information. This information does not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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