A Rise in Blood Pressure During the Pandemic

The Absinthe DrinkerWe’re on our way to enduring two years of this pandemic, and it’s still killing more than five thousand people daily – more than a thousand in the U.S. alone. But, as each of us has learned, that’s not all. Coping with the pandemic has brought stresses that are showing up in our physical and mental health. A new study in Circulation gives us a marker for it. In a cohort of 464,583 persons, Luke Laffin found a highly significant rise in average blood pressure after the start of the pandemic. This is a sharp change from the pattern in the year before the pandemic. They saw no change in these numbers from the beginning of 2019 until March of 2020.

This will have important implications for for our health. President Donald Lloyd-Jones of the American Heart Association explains:

“Even small changes in average blood pressure in the population can have a huge impact on the number of strokes, heart failure events and heart attacks that we’re likely to be seeing in the coming months.”

He called these findings “not surprising,” but “shocking.”

It’s Not About Weight Gain

You might think that this pandemic blood pressure rise is at least partly due to weight gain. But you would be wrong. As we’ve noted before, the popular narratives and data from self-reports on weight gain are a little shaky – for adults. Certainly, we’ve seen that children have experienced weight gain. Also, this has been a tough patch for people who are already living with obesity.

But in this study, adult weights did not go up any more in the pandemic than they were already rising beforehand. The authors explain:

Weight gain was not the apparent reason for the observed rise in BP during the pandemic, because an average reduction in weight in men was seen in the pandemic period (–0.2 ± 12.4 lb) and the increase in weight of women (0.6 ± 12.2 lb) was the same as the pre-pandemic period, in 400 067 (86%) participants with weight data in all 3 years.

Eating, Drinking, and Not Feeling Merry

The better bet for the cause of this pandemic jump in blood pressure is multiple factors: psychological stress, alcohol, physical activity constraints, and interruptions in medical care. It’s noteworthy that the biggest rise in blood pressures were seen in women and women are bearing some of the heaviest burdens of pandemic stress.

All of this tells us one thing. Masks and vaccines are essential for keeping the virus at bay. But self-care is essential, too. That means good nutrition, sleep, and physical activity. It means finding comfort in things that will cause you no harm. It also means following up on our ongoing medical needs without a pause, regardless of what the virus is up to.

Surviving the virus does no good if we succumb to something more ordinary.

Click here for the new study and here for further reporting.

The Absinthe Drinker, painting by Pablo Picasso / WikiArt

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December 7, 2021