Covid-19’s impact on health goes far beyond the immediate consequences of contracting the virus, or even its protracted symptoms. The stresses of the pandemic—from uncertainty to isolation, from loss of income to burnout—have been leaving a mark on the broader population too, and women’s bodies are already showing it.
Two recently published studies show the pandemic had significant effects on two elements long known to be potential proxies for stress: Blood pressure, and menstrual cycles, both of which showed changes during the pandemic. The research on blood pressure is especially relevant as it found women experienced more substantial changes than men, suggesting they might have been affected by the stressors more severely than their male counterparts.
The study on blood pressure, published in the Dec. 13 issue of the journal Circulation, looked at data from nearly half a million participants across all 50 US states, of which 53% were women. The participants were employees of various companies who had participated in a wellness program run by Quest Diagnostic since 2018, and averaged 45.7 years of age at the beginning of the study.
The study found a clear change from before and after the pandemic. While blood pressure data didn’t change significantly up until March 2020, the blood pressure values were significantly higher between April and December 2020 compared to the previous year.
Close to 30% of the participants were found to have increased blood pressure. It rose more significantly in women than men, which put them at higher risk of stroke and heart disease. The changes were not related to weight gain, as women had similar weight gains before the pandemic as well.
“The finding of greater [blood pressure] increases in women, compared with men, provides more evidence of the outsized burden that pandemics place on women,” write the authors in the study. This stress, say the authors, might have had a direct impact on blood pressure, or an indirect impact, for instance by increasing alcohol or junk food consumption, which in turn increase blood pressure.
Another study, published in the journal Fertility and Sterility, looked at data from 12,000 women tracking their periods through a mobile fertility app called Ovia Health and found that 36% registered changes in their menstrual cycles. The most common changes were delayed or anticipated periods (87%), followed by stronger symptoms (29%) and heavier bleeding (27%). These changes can impact women’s wellbeing, and especially in cases when women are trying to conceive.
Alongside reporting changes in their periods, participants were also asked to record their perceived level of stress. The result showed that those who reported menstrual changes reported feeling more stress than those whose cycles didn’t change.
This kind of finding is consistent with what emerged in previous studies. In 2007, research found menstrual pattern changes in more than 35% of the women aged 15 to 45 living in villages affected by the 2006 war in Lebanon. In 2011, 21% of the women of fertile age who lived in the areas hit by the Wenchuan earthquake in China also reported significant menstrual irregularities in the months following the event. Among the women who had sustained bigger personal and material losses in the earthquake, 30% recorded changes.
Additional disruption of menstrual cycles might temporarily be caused by covid-19 vaccines, but the sustained changes are likely to be attributed to the general stress of the pandemic, says Malloy. The changes in menstrual cycles are an indicator of the fact that women’s bodies are processing the broader social stressors, affecting especially women of color and of lower economic status, she says.