Blood pressure levels rose among U.S. adults after the pandemic-related shutdowns of spring 2020, according to new research that shows women and older adults had the highest increases.
The findings were published Monday in the American Heart Association's journal Circulation.
"At the start of the pandemic, most people were not taking care of themselves," lead study author Dr. Luke Laffin said in a news release. Laffin is co-director of the Center for Blood Pressure Disorders at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
"Increases in blood pressure are likely related to changes in eating habits, increased alcohol consumption, less physical activity, decreased medication adherence, more emotional stress and poor sleep," he said. "And we know that even small rises in blood pressure increase one's risk of stroke and other adverse cardiovascular disease events."
Almost half of U.S. adults have high blood pressure, also called hypertension, which is a leading cause of heart disease. Blood pressure is described using two numbers: systolic, the top number that measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats, and diastolic, the bottom number that measures pressure in the arteries between beats when the heart is resting.
In this nationwide study, researchers analyzed health data gathered from 2018 to 2020 for 464,585 participants with an average age of 46. They compared blood pressure levels prior to the pandemic with those that followed.
They found no change in blood pressure levels in the time leading up to March 2020, when the arrival of COVID-19 sparked a nationwide shutdown. But from April to December, when compared to the same time in 2019, average monthly blood pressure increases ranged from 1.1 to 2.5 mmHg higher for systolic measurements and 0.14 to 0.53 mmHg higher for diastolic.
Among women, the research showed increases in both diastolic and systolic measurements. Meanwhile, older adults experienced an increase in systolic blood pressure levels, and younger adults had an increase in diastolic measures over the same time period. Overall, 1 in 4 adults in the study were reclassified to a higher blood pressure category by the end of 2020.
The study didn't pinpoint why blood pressure rose, but did suggest it was not related to weight gain because men in the study experienced a drop in weight during the pandemic study period while women experienced the same increase in weight as the year prior to the pandemic. The research team said it will continue to analyze blood pressure trends in this population for 2021.
"Even in the midst of the pandemic, it's important to pay attention to your blood pressure and don't ignore your chronic medical conditions," Laffin said. "Get regular exercise, eat a healthy diet, and monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol. See your doctor regularly to learn how to reduce cardiovascular risk factors."
Editor's note: Because of the rapidly evolving events surrounding the coronavirus, the facts and advice presented in this story may have changed since publication. Visit Heart.org for the latest coverage, and check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials for the most recent guidance.
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