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The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on Americans' health, and not just from the virus itself. Along with the 49 million people who have been infected and more than 786,000 who have died from COVID-19, there's been reports of increases in drug overdoses, mental health struggles and anxiety and delayed diagnoses for diseases like cancer. And now researchers have identified another negative health effect of the pandemic — rising blood pressure.
The study looked at the results from an annual employer-sponsored wellness program that required employees to submit their blood pressure results. Using data from 464,585 people from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., the researchers noticed that there was no change in blood pressure levels between 2018 and 2019. But in 2020, between April and December, the numbers jumped up significantly.
Normal blood pressure levels are less than 120/80, and in 2020 Americans had blood pressure readings that were 1.10 to 2.50 higher for the top number, and 0.14 to 0.53 higher for the lower number.
Dr. Luke Laffin, lead author of the study and co-director of the Center for Blood Pressure Disorders at the Cleveland Clinic noted to Today that those may not seem like "huge increases," but they are in terms of blood pressure levels.
"It's concerning because these sustained elevations can increase risk for things like strokes and heart attacks," he said. Plus, higher blood pressure can lead to hypertension, a "silent killer" with no symptoms and something that around 100 million U.S. adults already have.
The researchers said that factors like increased drinking and stress, along with less exercise, are all likely causes of the rise in blood pressure levels.
"A lot of the factors that we saw — people going to the gym less, being more stressed, getting worse sleep, eating more poorly — those can all have a pretty significant impact on blood pressure," Laffin said.
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Both women and men had higher blood pressure levels, the researchers found, but the difference was more pronounced in women.
"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," Laffin told CNN.
Laffin said that researchers expect blood pressure to plateau and not go back down to pre-pandemic levels, which would likely cause an increase in heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases in the next few years.
He advised Americans to get their blood pressure levels checked regularly, whether that's at an annual physical or with the blood pressure monitors at pharmacies and grocery stores.
"A lot of people don't know their blood pressure is too high, particularly if they're not getting regular medical attention, and then they already have end organ damage, they have thickening of their heart muscle, they may have kidney disease," Laffin said. "You have to stay very vigilant. It's really important at all ages to be to be cognizant of controlling blood pressure."