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Experts say blood pressure among women has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly because women have had to take on more responsibilities. mixetto/Getty Images
  • High blood pressure can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Researchers say during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, blood pressure increased significantly, especially among women.
  • They say higher stress levels, a decline in healthy eating, and a reduction in exercise were among the factors.
  • Experts say it’s important to make wise food choices as well as make time for physical activity while dealing with the extra stress and lifestyle restrictions brought on by the pandemic.

If there have been times you felt your blood pressure rising during the COVID-19 pandemic, it may not have been your imagination.

New research says adults in the United States have had higher blood pressure than normal since the pandemic began and its related shutdowns and lifestyles changes became a way of life.

Women have been particularly affected.

The study, published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, looked at data from 464,585 employees and their spouses from several companies participating in employer-sponsored wellness programs done annually by Quest Diagnostics.

Quest measured the blood pressure of participants from all 50 states and the District of Columbia for 3 years, from 2018 to 2020.

Researchers from Quest and the Center for Blood Pressure Disorders at Cleveland Clinic reported that blood pressure readings from April to December 2020 were significantly higher when compared with those from 2019.

Average increases ranged from 1.1 to 2.5 mm Hg for systolic blood pressure, and 0.14 to 0.53 mm Hg for diastolic blood pressure.

While increases were seen across age groups for women and men, the largest increases were for women.

“We did see more pronounced increases in blood pressure in women,” said Dr. Luke Laffin, co-director of the Center for Blood Pressure Disorders at Cleveland Clinic, told CNN.

“Now, 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,” he said.

High blood pressure increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, two of the leading causes of death in U.S. adults.

Researchers wrote that the increases they saw could be significant.

Dr. Rigved Tadwalkar, a board certified cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told Healthline that weight gain — typically a cause of high blood pressure — didn’t seem to factor into the study’s conclusions.

“The most likely culprit during the pandemic is emotional stress, stemming primarily from dramatic changes in routines, and worry from not knowing what the future may hold,” Tadwalkar said.

“The corresponding changes in dietary patterns, including an increase in alcohol use, are certainly contributory,” he added. “Physical activity has also fallen for many, which is a known indirect cause of hypertension.”

Tadwalkar told Healthline there’s evidence people aren’t taking prescribed medications during the pandemic, “which means that many people with a preexisting diagnosis of hypertension may not be on an optimal medication regimen, leading to greater elevations in blood pressure.”

Heather Hanks, a nutritionist and medical adviser specializing in autoimmunity and chronic disease management at Medical Solutions in Barcelona, told Healthline it’s not just happening in the United States.

Hanks has noticed blood pressure jumps in her clients during the pandemic that she attributes to stress and poor diet.

“Many of my clients are working from home, and they are trying to wear many hats,” Hanks said. “Moms are trying to work from home while helping kids with virtual school. They have few outlets for stress, limited social interactions, and access to food all day long.”

“I coach my female clients on healthy snacking habits, which includes eating three balanced meals per day,” Hanks said. “If you do need to snack, then make sure your snacks come from healthy sources, such as fruits and vegetables, healthy dips, air-popped popcorn, and raw nuts.”

Hanks said exercise is important for healthy blood pressure, something that hasn’t been easy during the pandemic.

“I also help my clients look at their schedule to fit exercise in. These changes can help bring down high blood pressure,” Hanks said. “For many women, this may require them to ask for help from their partners or flexibility from their employer.”

“Asking for help is hard for women, but because heart disease is among the top killer for women, it’s absolutely necessary to prioritize your health,” she added.