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US Adults’ Blood Pressure Increased Substantially During COVID

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The COVID-19 pandemic is linked to higher blood pressure in middle-aged adults across the US, new research shows.

According to new research published today in Circulation, the COVID-19 pandemic is associated with higher blood pressure levels among middle-aged adults across the United States, particularly in the Midwest.

The American Heart Association highlightes that about half of all adults in the United States have high blood pressure, a leading risk factor for heart disease, and nearly 75% of all cases remain above the recommended blood pressure range. Between March and April 2020, stay-at-home orders were implemented across the United States in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. This resulted in a shift toward distant health care for a variety of chronic health issues, including hypertension, and had a detrimental effect on many people’s healthy living habits.

“At the start of the pandemic, most people were not taking good care of themselves. Increases in blood pressure were likely related to changes in eating habits, increased alcohol consumption, less physical activity, decreased medication adherence, more emotional stress and poor sleep,” says Luke J. Laffin, lead study author.

“And we know that even small rises in blood pressure increase one’s risk of stroke and other adverse cardiovascular disease events.”

Researchers used de-identified health data from an employee wellness program (which included employees and spouses/partners) to examine blood pressure changes before and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The data comprised approximately 500,000 individuals in the United States, with an average age of 46 years and a gender ratio of 54 percent, who had their blood pressure checked during an employee health screening every year from 2018 to 2020. According to the current American Heart Association blood pressure standards, participants were divided into four groups: normal, elevated, stage 1 hypertension, and stage 2 hypertension.

Next, they examined monthly average blood pressures from 2018 to 2019, as well as blood pressure measurements from January to March 2019 to January to March 2020. (pre-pandemic). The researchers next compared blood pressure variations from April to December 2020 (during the epidemic) to April to December 2019. (pre-pandemic).

The analysis revealed:

  • During the pandemic (April to December 2020), average monthly increases in blood pressure ranged from 1.10 to 2.50 mm Hg for systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading that indicates how much pressure the blood exerts against the artery walls with each contraction) and 0.14 to 0.53 mm Hg for diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number in a blood pressure reading that indicates how much pressure the blood exerts against the artery walls with each contraction). When comparing study years prior to the pandemic, blood pressure measurements were mostly constant.
  • Women had higher increases in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings, as did older individuals for systolic blood pressure and younger participants for diastolic blood pressure.
  • When compared to the pre-pandemic period, more participants (26.8 percent) were re-categorized to a higher blood pressure category from April to December 2020, while only 22 percent were re-categorized to a lower blood pressure category.

“From a public health perspective, during a pandemic, getting vaccinated and wearing a mask are important. However, the results of our research reinforce the need to also be mindful of chronic health conditions such as the worsening of blood pressure,” says Laffin.

“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.”

The study’s authors are following up on these findings to see if this pattern continues in 2021, which could imply a surge in strokes and heart attacks.

“Unfortunately, this research confirms what is being seen across the country – the COVID-19 pandemic has had and will continue to have long-reaching health impacts across the country and particularly related to uncontrolled hypertension,” says Eduardo Sanchez, the American Heart Association’s chief medical officer for prevention.

The main limitation of the study is that the primary cause of elevated blood pressure is unknown. Furthermore, the results of the study may not be indicative of persons who do not take part in an employee wellness program.

Source: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.121.057075

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