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The Pandemic Is Spiking Our Blood Pressure

COVID-19 has had numerous direct impacts on public health. Alongside the overwhelming number of cases and deaths, we’ve seen worsened depression and anxiety, increased pressure on healthcare systems and decreased access to preventive care. But what about the indirect impacts? In December, the American Heart Association reported that blood pressure has been on the rise since the onset of the pandemic.

Researchers collected blood pressure measurements from approximately 500,000 adults from 2018 to 2020. They found the readings increased slightly from 2019 to March 2020, but increased substantially from April 2020 to December 2020 compared with the same time period in 2019.

High blood pressure (or hypertension) is a chronic condition that occurs when too much pressure is put on the arteries. Blood pressure consists of two numbers: systolic pressure (measured when the heart pumps) and diastolic pressure (measured when the heart is at rest). Normal blood pressure is considered to be less than 120/80 mmHg.

About half of all American adults have hypertension, which is labeled a “silent killer” since it often presents few symptoms but can have serious consequences. Over time, the increased pressure can damage the heart, brain, vascular system, kidneys and eyes if left untreated. Hypertension is also a major risk factor for heart disease, which is the leading cause of death for Americans. Researchers predict that even modest increases in blood pressure levels will impact the number of strokes, heart attacks and heart failures we’ll see going forward.

The study’s authors are unsure what exactly caused the increase in blood pressure, but speculate that pandemic-driven behavioral changes such as decreased exercise, postponed doctor’s visits and increased alcohol intake are to blame. Other risk factors for hypertension include family history, genetics, high sodium intake and poor sleep patterns.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Luke Laffin, explained that the long-term stress brought on by the pandemic may also play a role. “In settings of chronic stress, really the changes in blood pressure are probably driven by some of the lifestyle choices we make when we’re stressed,” Laffin said. “We choose to have that nachos and beer, rather than make that healthy choice of a salad, or we don’t get as much sleep, or we choose not to go to the gym, we choose not to take our medicine. That’s probably how stress actually manifests predominantly with respect to increased blood pressure.”

What Should You Do?

Continuing to manage chronic illnesses and maintain a healthy lifestyle are key in preventing issues like hypertension. February is American Heart Month, which is a great time to assess your cardiovascular health and adopt heart-healthy habits. Here are some of the best ways to control high blood pressure and promote a healthy heart:

  1. Eat a healthy diet
  2. Exercise regularly
  3. Reduce sodium intake
  4. Limit alcohol intake
  5. Quit smoking
  6. Cut back on caffeine
  7. Reduce stress

How Employers Can Promote Heart Health This Month

Educate employees: Use the Fund’s Your Heart at Work Toolbox Talk to talk to employees about the risk factors for heart disease and how to prevent it. The LHSFNA’s collection of publications on chronic disease offers additional resources with more information on hypertension and how to live a healthier life.

Host a health fair: Health fairs are great opportunities for Laborers to get their blood pressure and other health indicators checked for free without taking time off to go elsewhere for screenings. The Health Promotion Division’s comprehensive health fair program provides screenings such as blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels. While health fairs don’t replace an annual physical with a doctor, they can help employees monitor important health numbers.

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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