In groundbreaking research published this month in the European Heart Journal—Digital Health, a potential link has been identified between the use of cell phones and hypertension, commonly known as high blood pressure. The study, which analyzed data from 212,046 participants in the UK Biobank, a widely used European data set, has implications for millions of people in the United States who suffer from high blood pressure, a condition associated with an array of negative health outcomes including heart failure, heart attack, atrial fibrillation, and stroke risk.
The research team found that increased cell phone usage was associated with higher rates of high blood pressure, and even genetic risk factors were not excluded. Participants were asked about their weekly cell phone usage and the amount of time spent making or receiving calls. The researchers examined individuals who spent 30-59 minutes, 1-3 hours, 4-6 hours, and more than 6 hours per week on the phone, and discovered that the risk of developing high blood pressure increased with the amount of time spent on the phone. Those on the phone for 30-59 minutes per week had an 8% increased risk, while those on the phone for 1-3 hours had a 13% increased risk. Those on the phone for 4-6 hours per week had a 16% increased risk, while those on the phone for more than 6 hours per week had a 25% increased risk of developing high blood pressure.
The research team also looked at whether holding a phone in one’s hand or using a hands-free device affected the risk of hypertension. However, they found no significant difference in the levels of new cases of high blood pressure among those who used hands-free devices.
Dr. Xianhui Qin, the study’s lead author, expressed hope that the findings would lead to new discoveries in the future while also encouraging people to make healthier choices today. He said in a press release, “Our findings suggest that talking on a mobile may not affect the risk of developing high blood pressure as long as weekly call time is kept below half an hour. More research is required to replicate the results, but until then it seems prudent to keep mobile phone calls to a minimum to preserve heart health.”
Dr. Kenneth Perry, an emergency physician based at Trident Medical Center in South Carolina, noted that more research is needed before physicians can start recommending changes in cell phone usage. He said, “The idea for us to see so many patients who have these predispositions to hypertension, and then on top of that, to have this issue with possibly having connection with cell phone calls…leading or increasing your risk to hypertension is a pretty interesting and new tack that they can take with research.”
The participants who reported using a cell phone at least once per week were found to have a higher level of education, were more likely to engage in high levels of physical activity, and tended to have a higher income level as well. Cell phone users were also more likely to be smokers.
While the research team acknowledges that more study needs to be done, they identified several limitations to the study. For example, the average participant was white, middle-aged, or older, and above the average health level of the British population. Furthermore, the nature of the data makes it difficult to directly connect just the length of phone calls and the amount of cell phone usage with hypertension.
Family physician Dr. Laura Purdy (MD) noted that while she wouldn’t change her treatment of patients based solely on this study, research like this can encourage people to make healthier decisions overall when they visit her office. She said, “If you feel that you are concerned enough by the risk in this study, that you want to change something about what you’re doing, go for it. If you want to test your blood pressure
more frequently, go for it, that’s not going to hurt you. If you want to back off on the number of calls that you make or receive on your cell phone because of this, go for it.”
As Dr. Purdy suggested, making small changes to your lifestyle can lead to big improvements in your overall health. Limiting the amount of time you spend on your phone is just one step you can take to reduce your risk of hypertension. Other lifestyle changes include maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, reducing stress, and following a healthy diet. Regular check-ups with your doctor can also help you stay on top of your blood pressure and make any necessary adjustments to your treatment plan.
The study’s findings raise important questions about the potential health impacts of cell phone usage, particularly for younger people who may be more likely to use their phones for extended periods. Dr. Perry suggested that future research should focus on younger participants, including children, to better understand the long-term effects of device usage.
“I think [it’s] easy to use this data as sort of that caution in the wind that says that maybe these devices are something that we should just keep an eye on, especially for our younger kids,” he said.
As we continue to rely more and more on technology in our daily lives, it’s important to consider the potential health impacts of our device usage. While more research is needed to fully understand the link between cell phone usage and hypertension, this study serves as a reminder to be mindful of the amount of time we spend on our phones and to take steps to maintain our overall health.