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Blood Pressure Rose in U.S. Adults During Pandemic

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Blood Pressure Rose in U.S. Adults During Pandemic

Blood pressure in adults in the United States was higher from April to December 2020 — during the COVID-19 pandemic — than in previous years, a change that couldn’t be explained by weight gained during that period, according to new research published in the journal Circulation.

The researchers noted that high blood pressure affects about half of all U.S. adults, making blood pressure control a public health priority — with large overall effects on outcomes like stroke, heart attack, and different types of cardiovascular disease. Until their study, they wrote, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on blood pressure was unknown, so they set out to measure its impact using data from a large employer-sponsored wellness program.

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The study included employees, and their spouses or partners, from all 50 states and the District of Columbia — for a total of 464,585 participants with an average age of 46 in 2018, as noted in a press release on the study. As part of the employer-sponsored wellness program, participants had an annual blood pressure measurement taken by trained personnel in 2018, 2019, and 2020.

Compared with 2018 blood pressure measurements, the researchers found no significant overall changes in 2019 or in January through March of 2020. But from April through December 2020, blood pressure was higher, with average monthly increases ranging from 1.1 mmHg to 2.5 mmHg for systolic blood pressure (the “top number” measured during heartbeats) and from 0.14 mmHg to 0.53 mmHg for diastolic blood pressure (the “bottom number” measured between heartbeats) compared with the equivalent month in 2019. These increases were seen in both men and women, and across all age groups — although women experienced larger increases than men in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and older people saw greater increases in systolic blood pressure while younger people saw greater increases in diastolic blood pressure.

The researchers also looked at whether participants’ blood pressure fell in the category of normal, elevated, or stage 1 or stage 2 hypertension based on standard U.S. guidelines. They found that while an equivalent number of people moved to a higher or lower category before the pandemic, during the pandemic more people moved to a higher category (26.8%) than to a lower category (22%).

While men experienced a small average annual weight reduction of 0.2 pounds during the pandemic period, women experienced a small average gain of 0.6 pounds — a gain equivalent to what was seen among women before the pandemic, when blood pressure stayed the same. So in both cases, weight gain couldn’t explain the blood pressure gains seen in both men and women. But the researchers suggested several other possible reasons why blood pressure could have increased — including increased alcohol consumption, lower levels of physical activity, less ongoing medical care (including potentially less detection and treatment of high blood pressure), and greater emotional stress.

“We know that even small rises in blood pressure increase one’s risk of stroke and other adverse cardiovascular disease events,” said study author Luke J. Laffin, MD, co-director of the Center for Blood Pressure Disorders at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, in the press release. “Even in the midst of the pandemic, it’s important to pay attention to your blood pressure and your chronic medical conditions. Get regular exercise, eat a healthy diet, and monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol. See your doctor regularly to learn how to manage your cardiovascular risk factors.”

Want to learn more about high blood pressure? Read “Treating High Blood Pressure” and see our “Blood Pressure Chart.”

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips on social media

A freelance health writer and editor based in Wisconsin, Phillips has a degree from Harvard University. He is a former Editorial Assistant for Diabetes Self-Management and has years of experience covering diabetes and related health conditions. Phillips writes on a variety of topics, but is especially interested in the intersection of health and public policy.

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