COVID-19 and Stroke Risk: What You Need to Know

April 30, 2024
April 30, 2024
COVID-19 and Stroke Risk: What You Need to Know

While acute COVID-19 primarily affects the respiratory system, its long-term impact can extend to other vital organs, including the brain. Recent research has highlighted a concerning link between COVID-19 infection and an increased risk of stroke, particularly among younger individuals. 

One study published in JAMA in April 2021 found that the risk of stroke was more than twice as high for COVID-19 patients when compared to people of the same age, sex, and ethnicity in the general population—82.6 cases per 100,000 people compared to 38.2 cases for those without a COVID-19 diagnosis (University of Utah).

Further, beyond the first 30 days after infection, individuals with COVID-19 are at increased risk of incident cardiovascular disease spanning several categories, including cerebrovascular disorders, dysrhythmias, ischemic and non-ischemic heart disease, pericarditis, myocarditis, heart failure, and thromboembolic disease.

Data and Risk Factors:

Studies have shown:

  • Increased Stroke Risk: Compared to individuals without COVID-19, those who contract the virus have a significantly higher risk of stroke. 
  • Younger Age Not Protective: While often thought of as a condition affecting older adults, stroke risk associated with COVID-19 is not limited to them. Research from the University of Utah indicates an increased stroke risk in all age groups following COVID-19 infection.

Why Does This Happen?

The exact mechanisms are still under investigation, but several theories suggest how COVID-19 might lead to stroke:

  • Inflammation: COVID-19 triggers a strong inflammatory response throughout the body. This inflammation can destabilize fatty plaques in blood vessels, increasing the risk of rupture and blood clot formation, potentially leading to stroke.
  • Blood Clotting Abnormalities: The virus can directly impact the blood clotting process, making it more likely for clots to form and block blood flow to the brain.
  • Endothelial Damage: COVID-19 may damage the inner lining of blood vessels (endothelium), further promoting clot formation and stroke risk.

Who is Most at Risk?

While anyone who has had COVID-19 faces an elevated stroke risk, certain individuals are considered particularly vulnerable:

  • Those with pre-existing conditions: People with underlying health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, or high cholesterol may a higher baseline risk of stroke, and COVID-19 further amplifies this risk.
  • Severe COVID-19 cases: Individuals who experience severe COVID-19 illness requiring hospitalization are more likely to develop complications like stroke.

How Long Does the Risk Last?

Research suggests that the increased stroke risk associated with COVID-19 may persist for up to a year following infection. This highlights the importance of continued vigilance even after recovery from the initial illness.

Reducing Stroke Risk After COVID-19:

If you have contracted COVID-19, here are ways to mitigate your stroke risk:

  • Manage pre-existing conditions: Optimally control any underlying health problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol through medication, lifestyle changes, and regular checkups with your doctor.
  • Healthy lifestyle: Maintain lifestyle measures that include a balanced diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep. These habits promote overall cardiovascular health and reduce stroke risk.
  • Seek medical attention promptly: If you experience any stroke symptoms like sudden weakness, numbness, or difficulty speaking after recovering from COVID-19, seek immediate medical attention.

Continued COVID Precautions Remain Crucial:

While the full picture of the COVID-19 and stroke link is still emerging, the evidence may demonstrate an increased risk. This underscores the importance of continuing to take precautions against COVID-19, including vaccination and masking, to minimize the overall risk of stroke and other complications.

Remember, protecting yourself from COVID-19 is not just about preventing acute respiratory illness; it's also about safeguarding your long-term brain health and reducing your stroke risk.

If you are looking for a team to help you manage your post-COVID neurological symptoms or stroke prevention, schedule an appointment with one of our neurology providers.

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Suja Johnkutty, MD
Suja Johnkutty, MD ABPN, is a New York-based board-certified neurologist.
About the Author
Suja Johnkutty, MD ABPN, is a New York-based General Neurologist with 23 years of experience. During which she has gathered extensive clinical experience and has served as a Clinical Adjunct Professor at the Department of Neurology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Dr. Johnkutty's academic journey includes a graduation from the esteemed Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University and the completion of her neurology residency at the Montefiore Hospital, affiliated with Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Further honing her skills, she pursued a Neuromuscular fellowship at the renowned Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. In recognition of her commitment to migraine awareness, she was honored with a Pfizer grant. Dr. Johnkutty has utilized this platform to increase understanding of headaches, coordinating speakers and delivering lectures to physicians, support staff, and medical students alike.

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