PASCO COUNTY, Fla. — Doctors have warned for some time that COVID-19 can cause damage to organs other than the lungs. Two recent studies offer insight on how the virus impacts the heart and the brain.

What You Need To Know

  • Researchers say Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai study among first to provide echocardiographic and electrocardiographic data

  • Imperial College of London study analyzed cognitive tests from more than 84,000 participants

  • Doctors say findings are further reason to practice COVID-19 precautions

  • More Coronavirus headlines

University of South Florida Health and Tampa General Cardiologist Dr. Bibhu Mohanty said to get a closer look at how COVID-19 impacts cardiovascular health, a host of studies are turning to imaging.

"It's very important. You know, there's a lot of viral illnesses that can impact the heart muscle, impact the heart's electrical system, and then in the end, together, how the heart actually functions and generates blood flow to the body," Mohanty said. "Now, we're able to look into the heart muscle into the dynamics of how this might actually be causing some of that dysfunction."

One of those studies was recently published in the Journal of the American College of CardiologyResearchers with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai found in part that 72 of 305 study participants developed myocardial injury while in the hospital.

Of the 118 participants who showed signs of injury but normal electrocardiographic (ECG) scans at presentation, 30.9% developed new ECG ischemic changes during hospitalization. Abnormalities found are connected to conditions including heart attack, heart failure, and pulmonary embolism.

"The most striking thing to me is that multiple elements of cardiac function were affected fairly significantly, even in patients who might not have shown overt signs of heart failure," said Mohanty. "That's probably the most interesting tidbit is that there's something underlying, something under the surface that the virus might be doing that that might elicit effects long term that we're not seeing in the acute clinical setting."

Another study from the Imperial College of London analyzed cognitive test data from 84,285 Great British Intelligence Test participants. The study notes they also complete a questionnaire about suspected and biologically confirmed COVID-19 infection. 

"Our analyses provide converging evidence to support the hypothesis that COVID-19 infection likely has consequences for cognitive function that persist into the recovery phase," researchers wrote.

Cognitive decline varied with symptom severity, but the study states the deficits were "not insubstantial" in some cases.

For instance, the score reduction for people hospitalized and put on a ventilator, "was equivalent to the average 10-year decline in global performance between the ages of 20 to 70 within this dataset."

The study says the global composite score reduction for this group was equivalent to an 8.5-point difference in IQ in a classic intelligence test.

"This really gets at a very important issue in COVID, which is just really beginning to get attention in the medical community, and that's the issue of what is referred to as 'the long-haulers,'" said Dr. Clifton Gooch, Chair of Neurology at USF Health and Vice President of Research at Tampa General.

Gooch said some studies have found as many as 20% of COVID-19 patients could experience lingering symptoms for weeks or months after they recover. He said cognitive symptoms are among those, including difficulty with concentration, focus, memory, and performing mental and visual/spatial tasks. 

This study also found evidence of cognitive decline in those with even mild symptoms.

"Just because you're young doesn't mean that you might not get this infection and have significant problems that could go on for a very long time and interfere with your life," Gooch said. 

The Imperial College study has yet to be peer reviewed, and investigators note more research into this topic is needed.

Doctors said because the medical community is still learning about the virus, it's unclear how long people could experience lasting symptoms of the virus.

"What we're going to have to figure out is, down the road, what kind of screening or monitoring protocols are we going to have to institute to make sure that patients who might have long term consequences are actually being caught and treated," Mohanty said. 

Both Gooch and Mohanty said recent findings about the possible long term effects of the virus are yet another reason to follow safety guidelines like practicing social distancing, wearing a mask, and frequent hand washing.