Dr. Angela Brown

Dr. Angela Brown meeting with fellow physician Phillip King and medical student David Zhang at the medical center’s main campus Fri. Dec. 17, 2021.

Nearly half of American adults have high blood pressure, a leading cause of heart disease, and nearly 75% of all cases remain above the recommended blood pressure levels, according to the American Heart Association. 

More than 40% of non-Hispanic African American men and women have high blood pressure. High blood pressure also develops earlier in life for African Americans and is usually more severe.

The COVID-19 pandemic is associated with higher blood pressure levels among middle-aged adults across the U.S., according to new research published by the American Heart Association.

“I think the reasons for this are multifactorial,” Dr. Angela Brown, director of the Hypertension Clinic at Washington University St. Louis, said. “The pandemic has been a very stressful time for everyone, and with all of the disruptions from the pandemic, including the stay-at-home orders, it caused changes in lifestyles where chronic illnesses like hypertension for a number of people were put on the backburner.”

Stay-at-home orders were implemented across the U.S. between March and April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This resulted in a shift to remote health care for numerous chronic health conditions, including high blood pressure, and negatively impacted healthy lifestyle behaviors for many people.

“A number of doctors appointments were canceled, but once the orders were lifted, there was a certain amount of fear that kept people inside,” Brown said. “In addition to that, people who were and are still at home, eating habits changed, which people have referred to as the ‘COVID 10,’ exercise habits changed, and sleep patterns were affected due to stress.”

According to the research study, blood pressure control worsened in both men and women with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States in 2020. 

“What we know is that African Americans are already at risk for heart disease overall because of the increased prevalence of hypertension,” Brown said. “African Americans tend to have high blood pressure or hypertension early in life, which tends to be more difficult to treat, and as a result tend to have poorer health outcomes.”

According to the study, women and older adults had the highest blood pressure measures during the pandemic.

Data shows hypertension control is lacking in the Black community, so other diseases such as heart disease and kidney disease are disproportionately high for the demographic.

“Before the pandemic, numbers showed that African Americans suffered from kidney disease at a disproportionate rate for the percentage of the population. When we look at awareness and treatment, African Americans are just as aware and receive the same education as Whites and Hispanics at the doctor’s office, but treatment and control rates tend to be lower, according to the NHANES database,” Brown said.

In the study, researchers accessed de-identified health data from an employee wellness program to assess changes in blood pressure levels before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. The data included nearly a half-million adults across the U.S., the average age of 46 years, 54% women, who had their blood pressure measured during an employee health screening every year from 2018 through 2020. 

The study authors are following up on these results to determine if this trend continued in 2021, which may indicate a forthcoming wave of strokes and heart attacks.

“Unfortunately, this research confirms what is being seen across the country – the COVID-19 pandemic has had and will continue to have long-reaching health impacts across the country and particularly related to uncontrolled hypertension,” Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, the American Heart Association’s chief medical officer for prevention, said.

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