As the pandemic drags on, depression is not the only lingering side effect – research suggests Americans’ average blood pressure has gone up, signaling even more concerns ahead.

The study, by Cleveland Clinic and Quest Diagnostics researchers and published in the journal Circulation, noted that nearly half a million adults registered blood pressure increases from 2019 to 2020, in the middle of the pandemic.

“We have seen this both in our clinical practice and in the medical literature. This recent study showed that only 53 percent of adults had their blood pressure under control in 2020, compared to 61 percent in 2019,” said Dr. Steven Borer, a cardiologist with the Hartford HealthCare Heart & Vascular Institute.

“Additionally, 27 percent were re-categorized to a higher blood pressure category in 2020, while only 22 percent moved to a lower category.”

Before the pandemic, almost half of all Americans had high blood pressure, putting them at greater risk for severe forms of COVID if infected.

“Although it may not yet be scientifically proven, it is fair to attribute these findings to the pandemic,” Dr. Borer said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a shift away from non-urgent medical visits and many preventive visits were postponed. People also experienced lifestyle changes like poorer eating habits, less physical activity with gym closures, increased emotional stress, poor sleep and decreased medication adherence. All of these can result in increased blood pressure.”

The added concern is the potential for long-term effects from elevated blood pressure, he continued.

There is potential for increases in:

  • Cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke.
  • Congestive heart failure.
  • Kidney disease.

“Locally and nationally, we are seeing a rise in hospitalizations for non-COVID issues such as heart attack and cardiovascular disease with increased complexity. It is speculated that an overall trend towards neglecting preventive health has led to sicker patients presenting to the hospital,” said Dr. Borer, who is developing a Lifestyle Medicine Program to address lifestyle issues that account for most chronic diseases, including hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity.

“Even small increases in blood pressure increase an individual’s risk of adverse cardiovascular events, reflecting the larger effect the pandemic has had on our overall health,” he said. Other changes include increases in weight, cholesterol, blood sugar, mental health problems and substance use.

“At the very least, people need to be more aware, if not concerned,” Dr. Borer said. “This is a reminder that, despite the pandemic, the leading cause of death in the United States remains cardiovascular disease. We can do a lot from a prevention standpoint.”

The healthcare system and individuals need to become better champions for disease prevention, including:

  • Scheduling routine preventive visits.
  • More aggressively controlling known cardiovascular risk factors such as hypertension.
  • Emphasizing a healthy lifestyle.

“About 90 percent of our healthcare costs can be attributed to treating chronic conditions related to poor lifestyle such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity and cancer,” he said.

“Improving one’s lifestyle, however, is challenged by lack of provider knowledge, limited access to integrated resources like stress management and nutrition, and the limited time providers spend with patients. This inspired us to create the Lifestyle Medicine Program, which will launch in early 2022,” Dr. Borer said.

“We recognize there is a major practice gap in addressing lifestyle, the root cause of 80 to 90 percent of our chronic disease. Lifestyle medicine combines nutrition, physical activity, sleep habits, stress management and avoidance of risky substance use as a primary way to treat and reverse chronic disease.”

The new program will consist of a multidisciplinary team of providers focused on addressing these issues to help patients identify their areas of need and uncover barriers to improve their lifestyles and, in turn, their overall health.