Dear Savvy Senior: Are people with high blood pressure at increased risk of getting corona virus? — Hypertensive Helen
Dear Helen: If you have high blood pressure, you definitely need to take extra care to protect yourself during the coronavirus pandemic. Research shows that people with hypertension are more susceptible to getting COVID-19, are more likely to develop severe symptoms if they do get sick, and are more likely to die from the infection, especially if they’re older.
A weaker immune system is the key reason people with high blood pressure and other health problems are at higher risk for the new coronavirus. Long-term health conditions and aging weaken the immune system so it’s less able to fight off the virus. Nearly two-thirds of Americans over 60 have high blood pressure.
Another concern that has been circulating, but was put to rest last month, was theories that the medications that are commonly prescribed to treat high blood pressure — ACE inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers — could make patients more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 and more susceptible to severe illness if they did become infected.
But new research published last month in The New England Journal of Medicine found no risk linked to these medications.
While pneumonia is the most common complication of the virus, it can also damage the cardiovascular system. That’s why people with high blood pressure, heart disease and heart failure are at risk.
High blood pressure damages arteries and reduces the flow of blood to your heart. That means your heart has to work harder to pump enough blood. Over time this extra work can weaken your heart to the point where it can’t pump as much oxygen-rich blood to your body.
The coronavirus can also damage the heart directly, which can be especially risky if your heart is already weakened by the effects of high blood pressure. The virus can cause inflammation of the heart muscle, which makes it harder for the heart to pump.
If you also have plaque buildup in your arteries, the virus could make those plaques more likely to break apart and cause a heart attack. Studies have shown that people with heart disease who get a respiratory illness like the flu or earlier types of coronavirus are at higher risk for a heart attack.
What to do?
While everyone needs to take precautions to prevent COVID-19, people with high blood pressure and other health conditions need to be extra careful.
The best way to avoid getting sick is to stay home as much as you can. If you have to go out, wear a mask and keep at least 6 feet away from other people. And every time you come home, wash your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds. Also, clean and disinfect all frequently touched surfaces like cellphones, countertops and doorknobs.
The CDC also recommends that you have enough medicine on hand to treat high blood pressure and other health conditions. And stock up on over-the-counter medicines to treat a fever and other symptoms if you get sick.
While a coronavirus vaccine isn’t available yet, you should stay up to date on your other important vaccines. The pneumococcal vaccines — Prevnar 13 and Pneumovax 23 — will prevent you from catching pneumonia on top of coronavirus. Also, get a flu shot in September or early October. Its symptoms are easy to confuse with COVID-19, which could make it harder for doctors to diagnose you if you do get sick.
Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.