Has the pandemic increased your risk for heart problems?

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While Americans have locked themselves in to protect themselves from COVID-19, they may have adversely affected their health in unexpected ways, according to the American Heart Association.

From April to December 2020 – the main part of the pandemic and the associated blockages – the 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 period in 2019, according to a new study published in the scientific journal AHA Circulation.

The change was noticeable, because before the pandemic, blood pressure readings had remained relatively stable in previous years, according to the study’s authors.

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

  • Less than 120 mm Hg for systolic blood pressure (the upper number, which indicates the pressure that the blood exerts against the walls of the arteries with each heartbeat), and
  • Less than 80 mm Hg for diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number, which indicates the pressure the blood exerts against the walls of the arteries between heartbeats)

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

“When the pandemic started, most people weren’t taking good care of themselves. The increases in blood pressure were probably related to changes in eating habits, increased alcohol consumption, decreased physical activity, decreased medication adherence, more stress emotional and poor sleep.

As Laffin notes, even a small increase in blood pressure increases your risk for stroke and other cardiovascular disease adverse events. Almost half of American adults have high blood pressure and about 75% of all cases stay above recommended blood pressure levels, according to the AHA.

To reach their conclusions, the researchers analyzed blood pressure data from nearly 500,000 adults with an average age of 46 in the United States. Those included in the scan had their blood pressure screened every year from 2018 to 2020.

Larger increases in blood pressure readings were recorded in women for systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Older participants saw their systolic blood pressure rise more and younger participants saw their diastolic blood pressure rise.

While it’s important to stay safe from COVID-19, Laffin says the study results underscore the need to stay on top of chronic health issues as well. He says:

“Even in the midst of the pandemic, it’s important to be careful with your blood pressure and chronic health issues. Exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, and monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. See your doctor regularly to find out how to manage your cardiovascular risk factors.

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