Heart disease remains the leading cause of death worldwide and the global burden will grow exponentially over the next few years as the long-term effects of the current Covid-19 pandemic evolve.

The American Heart Association's Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics 2021 Update, published in Circulation, warns that the broad influence of the Covid-19 pandemic will likely continue to extend that ranking for years to come.

Globally, nearly 18.6 million people died of cardiovascular disease in 2019, the latest year for which worldwide statistics are calculated. That reflects a 17.1% increase over the past decade. There were more than 523.2 million cases of cardiovascular disease in 2019, an increase of 26.6% compared with 2010.

Professor Salim S. Virani, chair of the writing committee for the 2021 Statistical Update and an associate professor in cardiology and cardiovascular research sections at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, said: "Covid-19 has taken a huge toll on human life worldwide and is on track to become one of the top three to five causes of death in 2020. But its influence will directly and indirectly impact rates of cardiovascular disease prevalence and deaths for years to come.

"Research is showing that the unique coronavirus can cause damage to the heart. Importantly, we also know people have delayed getting care for heart attacks and strokes, which can result in poorer outcomes."

Unhealthy behaviors in pandemic will increase the risk of heart disease

Another critical issue will be the cardiovascular health risks that are exacerbated by the poor lifestyle behaviors that have been prevalent throughout the pandemic.

"The extraordinary circumstances of dealing with Covid-19 have changed the way we live, including adopting unhealthy behaviors that are known to increase the risk of heart disease and stroke," Virani added.

"Unhealthy eating habits, increased consumption of alcohol, lack of physical activity and the mental toll of quarantine isolation and even fear of contracting the virus all can adversely impact a person's risk for cardiovascular health. We'll need to watch and address these trends as the full ramifications will likely be felt for many years to come."