(CNN) — US adults — especially women — have seen a rise in blood pressure during the coronavirus pandemic, a new study suggests.
The study, published Monday in the journal Circulation, included data on 464,585 employees and their spouses or partners from several different companies who participated in employer-sponsored wellness programs by Quest Diagnostics each year.
As part of the programs, workers and their partners from all 50 states and the District of Columbia had their blood pressure measured for three years in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Dr. Luke Laffin, co-director of the Center for Blood Pressure Disorders at Cleveland Clinic, and his colleagues at Cleveland Clinic and Quest Diagnostics examined those blood pressure readings.
The researchers found that the blood pressure readings appeared to be significantly higher during the pandemic in April through December of 2020 compared with in 2019, with increases ranging on average from 1.1 to 2.5 millimeters of mercury or mmHg for systolic blood pressure and 0.14 to 0.53 mmHg for diastolic blood pressure.
Blood pressure is measured in units of mmHg, which consists of two numbers — the upper or systolic reading and the lower or diastolic reading.
While systolic and diastolic blood pressure increases were seen for both men and women and across age groups, the researchers found larger increases among women.
“We did see more pronounced increases in blood pressure in women. Now, we don’t know the exact reason for that. However, we do know and there’s data to suggest that the pandemic has tended to place more of an outsized burden on women, particularly women that work, and this is an employer-sponsored wellness program,” Laffin said.
The study found that weight gain was not the apparent reason for climbing blood pressure levels during the pandemic — even though making poor diet choices during the pandemic could have played a role, among other factors.
“Blood pressure control is pretty multifactorial. It probably does have to do with what we’re eating, amongst other things,” Laffin told CNN.
“Too much sodium or drinking more alcohol — that’s been well documented during the pandemic, and we know that increases blood pressure,” Laffin said. “And then we know blood pressure is also affected by things like sleep, taking your medicine, all that plays a role.”
Laffin added that while acute stress can raise blood pressure, the ongoing pandemic has been more so associated with long-term chronic stress.
“We do know that in settings of chronic stress, really the changes in blood pressure are probably driven by some of the lifestyle choices we make when we’re stressed,” Laffin said. “So, we choose to have that nachos and beer, rather than make that healthy choice of a salad, or we don’t get as much sleep, or we choose not to go to the gym, we choose not to take our medicine. That’s probably how stress actually manifests predominantly with respect to increased blood pressure.”
High blood pressure increases the risk for heart disease and stroke, two leading causes of death for US adults, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The researchers noted in their study that an increase of 2 mmHg in systolic blood pressure is associated with significant increases in death from stroke and heart disease among middle-aged adults. The rise in systolic blood pressure among US adults in the study “could signal a forthcoming increase in incident cardiovascular disease mortality,” the researchers wrote.
Overall, “during the pandemic, public health measures like vaccination and masks are clearly important, but probably equally important during a pandemic is not neglecting chronic risk factors for cardiovascular disease or chronic medical conditions,” Laffin added. “So, make sure that you’re doing healthy lifestyle things — seeing your medical provider regularly, taking your medicine, if you’re taking high blood pressure medicines, all very important.”
Even before the pressures of the pandemic, a global study published in The Lancet in August found that the number of people ages 30 to 79 with high blood pressure doubled from 1990 to 2019, and more than half of them are not being treated for it.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are 10 ways to control high blood pressure:
- Lose weight.
- Exercise regularly.
- Eat a healthy diet.
- Reduce sodium in your diet.
- Limit how much alcohol you drink.
- Quit smoking.
- Cut back on caffeine.
- Reduce your stress.
- Monitor your blood pressure at home and with your doctor.
- Get the support you need from loved ones.
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