Pandemic Stress Caused Blood Pressure to Rise

High blood pressure illustration.

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Key Takeaways

  • High blood pressure became more common during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Experts say a range of factors, including stress and a change in lifestyle habits, likely contributed to the rise.
  • High blood pressure can be managed with the right treatment and lifestyle changes.

For months, mental health experts have talked about how the stress of living through a global pandemic can impact your mental well-being. Now, new research has shown it can have physical repercussions, too.

A study published in the American Heart Journal found that rates of blood pressure increased during the early months of the pandemic.

For the study, researchers analyzed home blood pressure data from 72,706 people enrolled in a digital health hypertension control program. The data was split into two sets—January 2019 to March 2020, from before the pandemic to the beginning of the pandemic, and April 2020 to August 2020, when it was already ongoing—and then compared the two groups.

The researchers found that after the pandemic began, the overall rate of uncontrolled high blood pressure jumped from 15% to 19%, and the rate of severely uncontrolled blood pressure rose from 4% to 5%.

What Is High Blood Pressure?

Your blood pressure is the pressure of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries, which carry blood from your heart to other parts of your body. While it’s normal for your blood pressure to rise and fall throughout the day, consistently high blood pressure can damage your heart and cause other health issues, including stroke and heart disease. Blood pressure is split into two readings: your systolic blood pressure, which is the upper number, and your diastolic blood pressure, which is the lower number. Standard blood pressure is considered less than 120/80 mmHg, with 120 being the systolic pressure and 80 the diastolic pressure. Anything higher than that is elevated.

“Not only did COVID-19 directly affect people’s health but indirectly, had effects on many chronic diseases, including hypertension,” Eric D. Peterson, MD, MPH, study coauthor and vice provost and senior associate dean for clinical research at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, told Verywell.

Why Have Rates of Hypertension Increased?

Experts say the findings aren’t shocking.

“I’m not surprised by the findings and have been seeing this rise in my patients across the age spectrum,” Chelsea Goodier, MD, an internal medicine physician at Mercy Family Physicians, told Verywell.

They point out that there are a few potential reasons behind this trend.

The stress of living through a global crisis is likely a culprit. And stress can have a direct impact on blood pressure, Rigved Tadwalkar, MD, a board-certified cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California, told Verywell. It primarily, “stems from dramatic changes in routines, and worry from not knowing what the future may hold,” he said.

Over the course of the pandemic, people also went fewer times to healthcare visits.

“A great deal of routine chronic disease management has fallen by the wayside in the pandemic as people put off routine care,” Alfred Tallia, MD, MPH, professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, told Verywell.

Like Tadwalkar emphasized, people’s habits and routines changed drastically, too.

“Many people have had a more sedentary lifestyle and increased their alcohol intake,” Jennifer Wong, MD, a cardiologist and medical director of Non-Invasive Cardiology at MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in California, told Verywell. Both of those can directly contribute to higher blood pressure, she said.

It may also come down to traditional reasons for upticks in high blood pressure: our diets. Foods high in salt can make an impact.

“A diet high in salt is often one of the biggest culprits in raising blood pressure,” Goodier said. “While most of us don’t pour salt all over our food, we have been getting more takeout and pre-packaged foods during the pandemic.” And, she pointed out, restaurants and companies that make pre-packaged food “definitely add salt for flavor.”

What This Means For You

Rates of high blood pressure have increased during the pandemic. Talk to your healthcare provider to learn more about your blood pressure, and what you can do to keep it in check.

How to Keep Your Blood Pressure in Check

Knowing your blood pressure, and taking steps to keep it under control is important for long-term health, Peterson said.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends doing the following to keep your blood pressure under control:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet that’s low in salt.
  • Limit your alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
  • Exercise regularly, striving for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.
  • Try to manage your stress levels.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Take your medications as recommended by your doctor.

If your blood pressure is higher than it should be, it’s important to work with your healthcare provider to lower it. In many situations, high blood pressure can be managed with lifestyle changes, Wong said. But, in some cases, medication may be needed to help you achieve a lower reading and get to where you should be.

Still, Goodier said it may take time to lower your blood pressure, even under a healthcare provider's care.

“I remind my patients that these are goals and I do not expect them to change overnight,” she said. “But with small changes here and there, we can manage their blood pressure with lifestyle modification.”

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Shah NP, Clare RM, Chiswell K, Navar AM, Shah BR, Peterson ED. Trends of blood pressure control in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemicAm Heart J. 2022;247:15-23. doi:10.1016/j.ahj.2021.11.017

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts about hypertension.

  3. American Heart Association. Changes you can make to manage high blood pressure.

By Korin Miller
Korin Miller is a health and lifestyle journalist who has been published in The Washington Post, Prevention, SELF, Women's Health, The Bump, and Yahoo, among other outlets.