Did the Pandemic Raise Your Risk of Heart Problems?

Woman with her hand on her heart
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As Americans locked down to protect themselves from COVID-19, they may have harmed their health in an unexpected way, according to the American Heart Association.

From April to December 2020 — the main part of the pandemic and associated lockdowns — average increases in blood pressure each month ranged from 1.1 to 2.5 mm Hg higher for systolic blood pressure and 0.14 to 0.53 higher for diastolic blood pressure, compared to the same time period in 2019, according to new research published in the AHA scientific journal Circulation.

The change was notable, because prior to the pandemic, blood pressure readings held relatively steady in previous years, according to the study authors.

The AHA defines “normal” blood pressure as a reading of:

  • Less than 120 mm Hg for systolic blood pressure (the top number, which indicates how much pressure blood is exerting against artery walls with each heart beat), and
  • Less than 80 mm Hg for diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number, which indicates how much pressure blood is exerting against artery walls between heart beats)

The researchers attribute the rise in blood pressure during the pandemic to several factors. In a press release, lead study author Dr. Luke J. Laffin, co-director of the Center for Blood Pressure Disorders at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, says:

“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.”

As Laffin notes, even a small rise in blood pressure elevates your risk of stroke and other adverse cardiovascular disease events. Nearly half of American adults have high blood pressure, and about 75% of all cases remain above the recommended blood pressure levels, the AHA says.

In reaching their findings, the researchers analyzed blood-pressure data from nearly 500,000 adults with an average age of 46 across the U.S. Those included in the analysis had their blood pressure screened every year from 2018 through 2020.

Larger increases in blood pressure measures were recorded among women for both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Older participants saw greater rises in systolic blood pressure, and younger participants saw their diastolic blood pressure jump.

While staying safe from COVID-19 is important, Laffin says the study results underscore the need to stay on top of chronic health conditions as well. He says:

“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.

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