I hate when people say this to me, but: You probably need to calm down. On Monday, new research published in Circulation observed that blood-pressure measurements among adults in the U.S. rose significantly last year, especially among women. After a year marked by immeasurable grief, burnout, diminishing savings accounts, and an ever-mutating virus looming over our heads, I can’t say that I’m surprised.
Dr. Luke Laffin, the lead study author, knew that the pandemic had rewritten everyone’s day-to-day lifestyles — less regular health care, less exercise and sleep, and bigger wine pours — and he and fellow researchers wanted to know if the pandemic was also changing blood pressure. As it turns out, it was, and not for the better. While blood-pressure measurements didn’t fluctuate much from 2019 into early 2020, the pandemic months of April to December 2020 saw a significant increase in systolic and diastolic blood-pressure measurements. (Systolic blood pressure measures the pressure exerted by a beating heart; it’s the top number on your blood-pressure readings. Diastolic pressure measures the pressure in your arteries between the beats — the bottom number.)
The study of more than a half-million adults found that though both men and women experienced higher blood pressure, women saw larger increases all around. Researchers can’t confirm the reason for the disparity, but they have some guesses, pointing to data that the pandemic has placed a disproportionate burden on women, particularly women who work outside the home. Researchers concluded that the rise was “multifactorial” and emphasized that major contributing factors may include chronic stress and a lack of care: Many people have “lost contact” with the health-care system during the pandemic months and have neglected their personal health outside of explicitly COVID-related issues.
But increased blood pressure is an issue whose effects will linger long after the pandemic. High blood pressure, which tends to disproportionately affect Black Americans, can cause damage to blood vessels and arteries as well as to vital organs, like the heart, brain, kidneys, and eyes, and can cause heart attacks, heart failure, and strokes.
Anyway, if you’re reading this, now is probably a good time to unclench your jaw. Maybe even do a little wiggle?