- Experts say the risk of high blood pressure has risen during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
- They say stress, isolation, and missing regular doctor appointments are factors.
- Experts recommend a balanced diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep to keep your blood pressure at a healthy level.
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Stressed out about COVID-19 lockdowns?
You’re not alone.
More than half of adults in the United States say their mental health has been negatively affected due to worry and stress over the new coronavirus, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll conducted in mid-July.
Now, a new study suggests that lockdown-related stress may be affecting our physical health, too.
More people are showing up in hospital emergency rooms with high blood pressure since COVID-19 lockdowns began in Argentina, a study presented at the 46th Argentine Congress of Cardiology found.
“Admission to the emergency department during the mandatory social isolation period was linked with a 37 percent increase in the odds of having high blood pressure — even after taking into account age, gender, month, day and time of consultation, and whether or not the patient arrived by ambulance,” said Dr. Matías Fosco, a study author and an emergency room physician at Favaloro Foundation University Hospital in Buenos Aires, in a statement.
The research hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal.
Fosco and his colleagues studied blood pressure readings for people over age 21 admitted to the hospital’s emergency room during Argentina’s 3-month social isolation period from March 20 to June 25.
Blood pressure readings were compared to the same 3 months in 2019 and the 3 months immediately before the beginning of the country’s general lockdown — which required all Argentinians, except essential workers, to stay home.
During the lockdown, researchers found that almost 24 percent of those admitted to the emergency room had high blood pressure, compared to 17 percent during the same time period in 2019 and 15 percent during the 3 months before the lockdown began.
Overall emergency room admission didn’t change significantly during the time periods studied.
“After social isolation began, we observed that more patients coming to emergency had high blood pressure,” Fosco said. “We conducted this study to confirm or reject this impression.”
The people studied were admitted to the emergency room for a variety of reasons. The most common reasons were chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, abdominal pain, fever, cough, and high blood pressure.
Fosco said chronic stress due to COVID-19-related loss of personal connections, financial strain, or family difficulties could explain the increase in the rate of high blood pressure.
“Changed behaviors may have played a role, with higher intake of food and alcohol, sedentary lifestyles, and weight gain,” he said.
Acute and short-term stress related to COVID-19 may have also played a role.
“Patients may have felt more psychological tension during transportation to the hospital because of travel restrictions and police controls and a fear of becoming infected with coronavirus after leaving home,” Fosco said.
“In addition, patients being treated for high blood pressure may have stopped taking their medicine due to preliminary warnings about possible adverse effects on COVID-19 outcomes (which were later dismissed),” he said.
Dr. Nicole Harkin, a cardiologist and founder of San Francisco-based Whole Heart Cardiology, told Healthline that the Argentine findings reflect what she’s seen in her own practice.
“During the pandemic, we’ve certainly seen a decrease in routine follow-ups and preventive care, and with that, unfortunately, a rise in patients coming to the hospital with heart attack complications and other emergencies,” Harkin said.
“We’ve also seen an unprecedented amount of stress with the election, virtual schooling, economic strain, and everything else that has come our way this year. Our lifestyles have also changed dramatically, with less access to gyms and a decrease in daily steps as well as stress eating and quarantine baking,” she said.
“All of these things can contribute to worsening health status,” Harkin added, “and I’m not at all surprised by the results of this study that found, on average, higher blood pressure in patients presenting to the emergency room.”
“Being in isolation for someone who is not used to it can also cause an increase in blood pressure,” Rebecca A. Hawkes, chief operating officer of Utah’s Valley Behavioral Health, told Healthline.
“I’ve had to conduct so many telehealth sessions for patients who were in this category, and their blood pressure was through the roof,” she said.
Heavy alcohol use also can increase blood pressure, Hawkes noted.
Fosco and his colleagues also plan to study whether rates of elevated blood pressure decrease when lockdown rules are eased.
“This study illustrates the collateral damage generated by isolation,” said Héctor Deschle, the conference’s scientific program chair and head of the echocardiography lab at Buenos Aires’ Diagnóstico Maipú clinical laboratory, in the study statement.
Deschle noted that COVID-19 has been associated with a decline in doctor visits for cardiovascular conditions, which can lead to avoidable health complications.
“This study puts the spotlight on the concomitant consequences of the outbreak and the restrictions used to struggle against it,” he said.
Dr. Jose Luis Zamorano Gomez, a professor of medicine at University Complutense in Madrid, Spain, and director of the Cardiovascular Institute at the University Clinic San Carlos, told Healthline that cardiologists “must keep a watchful eye on our cardiology patients beyond the pandemic. If we do not treat and carefully follow our cardiac patients during the pandemic, we will see an increase of adverse outcomes in the future.”
Harkin advised that people — and particularly those with known cardiac issues — keep up with their routine care.
“Doctors and hospitals are taking every precaution to be sure that clinics are safe to visit, and if you have any concerns about the safety, don’t hesitate to call the office to ask what protocols they have in place,” she said. “You can also ask if a telemedicine visit might be right for you.”
People taking blood pressure medication should consider getting a 90-day supply to minimize trips to the pharmacy, or get prescriptions by mail. Home blood pressure monitoring technology can also help, Harkin said.
“While it’s tough, lifestyle measures are more important than ever for keeping blood pressure down,” she added. “This includes plant-forward diets rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, adequate exercise, and plenty of sleep.”
“While we can’t go to gyms, you can still take runs or walks outside. Just avoid crowds when possible,” she added. “Home exercise equipment, if you have it, can be fantastic, but you can always use things around the home as makeshift weights. There’s also tons of free classes available to stream that require minimal to no props, like yoga and Pilates-style classes.”
“Lastly, stress reduction and sleep are paramount,” Harkin said.