In a new study, researchers have found that blood pressure increased in adults in the United States during the pandemic compared with previous, non-pandemic years.
The research, published in the journal Circulation, makes clear that the health effects of the pandemic include not just the COVID-19 disease but also other, indirect health issues.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), blood pressure describes the pressure blood exerts against a person’s arterial walls.
Doctors measure blood pressure at two points: when a person’s heart is pumping, known as systolic blood pressure, and when a person’s heart is resting between beats, known as diastolic blood pressure.
If a person has high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, they are at a greater risk of stroke or heart disease. Hypertension can also damage a person’s liver, eyes, and brain.
The CDC state that 47% of U.S. adults have hypertension, and in 2019 hypertension was the primary or contributing cause of more than 500,000 deaths.
A person can help maintain healthy blood pressure levels by eating a diet low in salt and high in fruit and vegetables, exercising regularly, avoiding smoking, and limiting alcohol intake.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic significantly disrupted people’s behavior and access to regular medical care.
Researchers are interested to see if this disruption had an effect on people’s blood pressure levels.
Almost half a million participants
To look at blood pressure levels during the pandemic relative to previous years, a group of scientists studied data from an employee wellness program in the U.S covering 2018–2020.
This involved 464,585 participants, 53.5% of whom were women, with an average age of 45.7 years in 2018. The paper offered no information regarding the racial or ethnic makeup of the participants.
The scientists compared blood pressure levels before the pandemic in 2018, 2019, and until March of 2020, when most U.S. states gave stay-at-home orders. They then compared these levels with those recorded from April–December 2020 during the pandemic.
Blood pressure levels increased
The researchers found that before the pandemic, there was no significant change in blood pressure between years.
However, each month during the pandemic, blood pressure increased by an average of 1.1 to 2.5 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) for systolic blood pressure and 0.14 to 0.53 mmHg for diastolic blood pressure. This was the case for both women and men of different ages.
Women, on average, had greater increases for both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Older participants had greater systolic blood pressure increases, whereas younger participants had greater diastolic blood pressure increases.
Speaking to Medical News Today, Dr. Luke Laffin, co-director of the Center for Blood Pressure Disorders at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and the study’s lead author, said that “[d]ietary indiscretion, lack of exercise, central obesity, excessive alcohol consumption, and not taking prescribed blood pressure medications can all drive high blood pressure.”
“Other research demonstrates that lifestyle habits like excessive alcohol intake worsened during the pandemic, so it is not surprising that a blood pressure elevation followed.”
“We also know that patients hesitated to see their doctor, particularly in the early part of the pandemic, and that may have contributed to increased blood pressures,” said Dr. Laffin.
Prof. Matthew Bailey, who leads hypertension and renal research at the Centre for Cardiovascular Science at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and was not involved in the study, told MNT that the findings were significant and had global implications.
“This paper has examined almost half a million people and clearly shows that the societal changes [and] restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic have increased blood pressure. The effect is particularly large in women, and there is also an unanticipated increase in young people.”
“A rise in blood pressure of this size increases the risk of debilitating heart attack or stroke. For individuals and their families, cardiovascular disease can be devastating. [F]or governments, these conditions are costly to treat and manage. Health budgets are already overstretched.”
“This study is based in the U.S. but is relevant globally. It provides an early warning signal that poor cardiovascular health might be a big problem a few years down the line,” said Prof. Bailey