Is Your Blood Pressure Rising? New Study Suggests Americans’ Levels Are Increasing During the Pandemic

Is Your Blood Pressure Rising? New Study Suggests Americans’ Levels Are Increasing During the Pandemic
·5 min read
  • A new study found Americans’ blood pressure was “significantly higher” during the COVID-19 pandemic than pre-pandemic.

  • Researchers hypothesize the increase in blood pressure is due to changes in exercise routine, diet, and an increase in stress.

  • Americans should continue to visit their healthcare providers and make lifestyle changes to improve their overall health.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a slew of weird side effects from those who were unfortunate enough to catch the virus. From earaches and COVID tongue to erectile dysfunction and psychosis, the sometimes long-lasting covid-19 symptoms have scientists scratching their heads in disbelief. But one thing researchers recently noticed was an increase in overall blood pressure–even in those who never contracted COVID-19.

In the new study published in the journal Circulation, researchers found Americans’ blood pressure was “significantly higher” during the pandemic compared to previous data. The study used a sample of 464,000 people from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Participants were from an annual employer-sponsored wellness program that required employees to have their blood pressure checked; 53.5% of participants were women, and the average age was 45.7 in 2018.

Researchers analyzed blood pressure in the three-year period of 2018 through 2020. The pre-pandemic time period was assumed to be January 2019 through March 2020, with the pandemic period classified as April through December 2020—with special attention to mid-March through April 2020 when most parts of the U.S. were placed under stay-at-home orders.

What did the study find?

Of the over 464,000 participants reviewed for three full years, researchers found blood pressure stayed the same between 2018 and 2019 but there was a “significantly higher” increase in April to December 2020. The increase was seen for both men and women, but women were found to have greater increases.

Ideally, healthy blood pressure should be 120 over 80 and elevated blood pressure is considered 129 above and 89 below, says Rigved Tadwalkar, M.D., a board-certified cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center. Researchers found blood pressure jumped 1.10 to 2.50 higher for the top number, and 0.14 to 0.53 higher for the bottom number, according to the study.

What does this mean for Americans’ health?

Even though this doesn’t seem like a lot, when it comes to blood pressure it can make a big difference. “Even small changes in average blood pressure in the United States population can translate in significant increases in heart attacks, heart failure, and more down the line,” explains Luke Laffin, M.D., lead study author and co-director of the Center for Blood Pressure Disorders at Cleveland Clinic said in an interview with Prevention.

Surprisingly, weight gain was not the reason researchers saw an increase in blood pressure. In fact, among those included in the study, an average weight loss was seen in men and an increase in weight gain equivalent to that of the pre-pandemic time period was seen in women.

So what did cause the uptick in blood pressure?

Though there’s no direct link to why this has happened, researchers hypothesized that the changes made to the day-to-day lives of Americans due to the pandemic were likely the cause. “We know from data there was a significant change in blood pressure when restrictions were put on Americans,” Dr. Laffin said. Changes, like not going to the gym or being as active, an increase in takeout or overall changes in dietary patterns, higher alcohol consumption, avoiding doctors appointments, and lack of adherence to medications, could all be related, he said.

“Anecdotally, we saw patients weren’t coming to the clinic as much as they did and weren’t renewing their prescriptions,” he adds. “We’re not surprised by the results. People weren’t going to their doctor or gyms as much, which likely changed their blood pressure.”

Additionally, the emotional toll put on so many families can have a major impact on blood pressure, Dr. Tadwalkar says. The added stressors likely led to changes in routine, anxiety, and more.

It is important to note that beyond environmental factors, conditions like kidney disease, adrenal tumors, thyroid dysfunction, certain types of medications, and obstructed sleep apnea can also increase blood pressure, Dr. Tadwalkar says.

Why is high blood pressure such a concern, anyway?

“High blood pressure can cause a whole variety of complications, but the one’s we’re most interested in is a heart attack or stroke,” Dr. Tadwalkar says.

High blood pressure can thicken and harden the arteries, causing plaque to build up in the blood vessels causing a blockage, he explains. Additionally, the opposite can happen when the walls of the blood vessels weaken, leading to an aneurysm. Other complications include heart failure, metabolic syndrome (which puts you at higher risk for high insulin resistance, stroke, diabetes, and more), and even some forms of dementia, he adds.

What can you do to stay on top of your blood pressure?

High blood pressure affects almost half of United States adults, according to the study. If you have a known family history of hypertension, Dr. Laffin encourages getting enough sleep (the recommended minimum of seven hours), watching your dietary salt (under 2,300 mg when limiting sodium), and exercising regularly (150 minutes of moderate activity a week) to keep your blood pressure in check.

Dr. Tadwalkar agrees, noting a high-sodium diet as the “top culprit” for high blood pressure readings. Foods like canned foods, processed foods, and restaurant foods are often packed with unnecessary sodium. Additionally, he notes that low potassium can also raise blood pressure, so your doctor may recommend foods like potatoes, bananas, and beans to help increase your potassium levels if that is the issue. He particularly likes the DASH diet for helping to control blood pressure and improve overall nutrition.

Another larger concern during the COVID-19 pandemic was the increase in alcohol consumption which Dr. Tadwalkar says can raise blood pressure significantly. Though most recommendations say women can have one drink and men two drinks per day, he suggests keeping alcohol intake to just a few times a week.

Meanwhile, Dr. Laffin encourages people to regularly see their healthcare providers and take their medications as instructed. Typically, once a year for a blood pressure check is adequate for someone who is otherwise healthy, he says.

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