Nearly 500,000 US adults suffered a sharp spike in blood pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic

In the wake of one of the most stressful periods of modern U.S. history, thousands of Americans suffered substantial increases to their blood pressure last year.

Researchers from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio gathered blood pressure data from 464,585 employees and family members of Quest Diagnostics from the years 2018, 2019 and 2020.

They found that changes in both systolic (SBP) and diastolic (DBP) blood pressure increased by much more in 2020 than they did on average in 2019.

Average change is SBP among participants increased by 2.5 millimeters of mercury (mm HG) – the standard measurement of blood pressure – compared to an increase of around 1.1 mm HG the year before.

For DBP, there was an increase of 0.53 mm HG found, compared to an increase of only 0.14 mm HG the year before.

Researchers warn the pandemic may have exacerbated America’s already problematic levels of hypertension.

Researchers found that both SBP (left) and (DBP) increased than usual last year among study participants. Levels of SBP jumped by 2.5 mm HG, compared to 1.1 the year before, while DBP increased by 0.53 mm HG compared to 0.14 mm HG the year before

The increases were found in people of both genders and of all age groups, though blood pressure increased more in women (left) than men (right)

Every three months, employees at Quest Diagnostic and their spouces are given a blood pressure check as part of the company’s wellness program.

The researchers, who published their findings in Circulation on Monday, compared data in separate three month intervals.

They then calculated the average change in blood pressure across three month periods.  

Blood pressure is calculated using two different figures, and usually written as a fraction with SBP over DBP.

For example, 120/80, with a SBP of 120 and a DBP of 80, or lower is often considered the standard blood pressure.

When a person reaches 140/90, they are considered as having high blood pressure – known as hypertension. 

The increases of 2.5 SBP and 0.53 DBP are major shifts in the person’s blood pressure in only one year, and the trend appearing in a sample of nearly 500,000 people is especially worrying.

‘We observed that people weren’t exercising as much during the pandemic, weren’t getting regular care, were drinking more and sleeping less,’ said Dr Luke Laffin, the study’s lead author and a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic told the New York Times about the causes of this shift upwards.

While the research team has a few hunches, they cannot pin point a reason for last year’s spike in blood pressure. 

Laffin told the NY Times that the most common cause of increased blood pressure, weight gain, could be ruled out since there was not an usual increase in weight among the study participants. 

Both men and women, and people of all ages, were found to have suffered an increase in blood pressure.

Women’s blood pressure was affected more by the pandemic, though, and researchers are not sure why that is, either.

Nearly half, 47%, of Americans suffer from hypertension, and health officials warn that the figure will only increase due to the poor diet and exercise habits of many Americans (file photo)

‘It is probably multifactorial,’ said Dr Donald Lloyd-Jones, president of the American Heart Association, told the NY Times.

‘But 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.’

High blood pressure is usually a condition that gradually develops after a number of years. 

Being unhealthily overweigh, not physically active, eating too much sodium and smoking are usually considered high risk factors.

There is also a genetic component, with those who have a family history of the condition being more at risk.

Black people are also generally more at risk of developing hypertension that people of other races. 

According the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 47 percent – or 116 million – of American adults have hypertension, and they warn that the poor diet and exercising habits of the population mean the number will likely increase over time.