December 08, 2021
The long-term disruption and chronic stress brought on by the coronavirus pandemic have taken their toll on the American public in countless ways.
Across the adult population, the aggregate health impact is showing up in the form of higher blood pressure readings, especially among women, and physicians now are concerned about long-term risks if their patients don't take concerted action to address the problem.
A new, large-scale study from the Cleveland Clinic and Quest Diagnostics tracked the blood pressure readings of more than 464,500 U.S. workers and their spouses who participated in company wellness programs over a period of three years from 2018 through 2020.
The research, published Monday in the journal Circulation, found that average readings jumped significantly between April 2020 and December 2020 compared to the previous year. Not surprisingly, those months overlap directly with the onset of the pandemic and dashed routines that saw many Americans abandon exercise, turn to drinking, eat poorly and skip routine medical checkups — all things that can contribute to higher blood pressure readings.
High blood pressure refers to the measurement of blood against the walls of arteries and is determined by a reading of two numbers in millimeters of mercury, or mmHg. The top number, the systolic reading, is a measure of pressure as the heart contracts, while the lower number, the diastolic reading, measures pressure when the heart rests between beats.
Though there is ongoing medical debate about the ideal blood pressure, the normal range is considered about 120/80 mmHg or less.
Between April and December last year, blood pressure readings rose by a monthly average of 1.1 to 2.5 mmHg for systolic blood pressure and 0.14 to 0.53 mmHg for diastolic blood pressure compared to the previous year.
Researchers have theorized that the blood pressure increases among women, who represented just over half of the study participants, may be due in part to heavier burdens placed on working women during the pandemic. The average of age all study participants was about 45.
"We did see more pronounced increases in blood pressure in women," lead study author Dr. Luke Laffin, a preventive cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinc, told CNN. "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."
There also has been some criticism of the study's exclusion of race and ethnicity data, The New York Times reported. Hypertension, the long-term condition associated with elevated blood pressure, disproportionately impacts Black Americans, who were also harder-hit by the pandemic.
Laffin said the higher readings during the pandemic are likely the result of multiple factors rather than any one thing. Higher alcohol consumption, chronic stress, poor diet and lack of adherence to medications all can contribute to higher blood pressure.
"I think a critical piece is that we know so many people lost contact with the health care system, and lost control of blood pressure and diabetes," Laffin told the Times.
Hypertension affects nearly half of U.S. adults and is among the most deadly chronic conditions in the country, claiming more than 516,000 lives in 2019, according to the CDC. Since it is often asymptomatic, medical check-ups are a priority for groups who may be at higher risk — people who are over 35, pregnant women, those who are overweight and people who aren't active or consume too many fatty or high-sodium foods.
If left untreated, high blood pressure can lead to a range of health problems that may result in heart attacks, strokes, aneurysms, heart failure or narrowed blood vessels in the kidneys. It can also lead to cognitive impairments that worsen over time.
For those who have seen their blood pressure readings rise during the pandemic, there are a number of steps that can be taken to help return to a normal range.
Regular exercise — such as walking, jogging, cycling and swimming — are all helpful in reducing blood pressure and keeping weight down. High intensity interval training, which involves short bursts of energy followed by lighter recovery periods, can be an especially effective piece of an exercise program alongside some weight training. Those who may not have a firm grasp of their limits are advised to consult with a doctor to develop a plan for physical activity.
Following a more conscious diet also can have a beneficial impact for those with high blood pressure. Eating fewer foods high in salt, sugar and refined carbohydrates will help normalize blood pressure, while focusing on foods high in potassium will go a long way.
Some recommended foods include low-fat dairy items such as milk and yogurt, fish and range of fruits and vegetables including bananas, apricots, oranges, avocados, sweet potatoes and spinach.
The National Institutes of Health uses the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) as a useful guideline for people with high blood pressure. A high protein diet paired with high fiber can help maintain a healthy balance without ditching favorite meals.
Avoiding processed foods — deli meats, snacks like chips and crackers, canned soup and pizza — will help reduce intake of sodium, sugar and refined carbohydrates.
Dark chocolate, for those who need a good treat, offers many health benefits including the flavonoids in cocoa that help widen blood vessels.
Another important goal for those aiming to lower their blood pressure is finding ways to reduce stress, whether it's simplifying a chaotic and demanding lifestyle or seeking out activities that aid in stress relief. Yoga and meditation are valuable tools to better manage stress, as is drinking green tea and oolong tea. Getting good, restful sleep on a consistent basis also can have a profound impact on keeping stress at bay.
Certain supplements and herbs can be used to supplement dietary and lifestyle changes. Garlic and garlic extract are both known to lower blood pressure, while ginger root, sesame oil, tomato extract and cinnamon are among the herbs associated with improved readings, according to Healthline. Whey protein, magnesium and citrulline can be added to a supplement routine as well.
One critical step to take if high blood pressure has become an issue over the past year is evaluating lifestyle changes that may have happened during that timeframe. Drinking more alcohol, smoking and consuming high amounts of caffeine are common culprits and should be avoided or reduced as part of a larger health plan.
The most important thing to do for people who are at risk is scheduling a doctor's appointment to consult about options, which may include prescription medications to help lower blood pressure.
Making a series of small changes can add up to a big difference when it comes to avoiding or managing hypertension, and as research continues to reveal the wider health consequences of the pandemic, taking proactive steps to lead a healthier life will prevent these changes from leading to long-term conditions.