According to a study published in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association (AHA), the winter holiday season is considered a risk factor for cardiac and non-cardiac death.
While researchers don’t know exactly why heart attacks are more common around holidays, they note a number of possible reasons, including changes in diet and alcohol consumption during the holidays, stress from family interactions, strained finances, travel and entertaining, respiratory problems from burning wood, and not paying attention to the signs and symptoms of a heart attack.
The first question, of course, is why this happens. Doctors have long known that cold weather is hard on the heart. Very cold temperatures are thought to affect the heart by increasing blood pressure and also increasing the chances of blood clotting.
But cold weather alone does not explain the spike. According to a 2004 study by researchers at the University of California, San Diego and Tufts University, the number of cardiac deaths is higher on Dec. 25 than on any other day of the year, second highest on Dec. 26, and third highest on Jan. 1. What’s more, holiday heart attacks happen at the same rate in balmy places like Los Angeles as they do in chilly northern Ohio.
One theory is that people don’t want to disrupt festivities, so they ignore symptoms they otherwise might respond to. It’s also possible that out-of-town travelers might take longer to find medical care, as they are unfamiliar with the area.
What causes a heart attack and what are the warning signs?
Coronary artery disease is the narrowing or blockage of the coronary arteries caused by atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis (sometimes called "hardening" or "clogging" of the arteries) is the buildup of cholesterol and fatty deposits (called plaque) on the inner walls of the arteries that restricts blood flow to the heart.
Without adequate blood, the heart becomes starved of oxygen and the vital nutrients it needs to work properly. This can cause chest pain called angina. When one or more of the coronary arteries are completely blocked, a heart attack (injury to the heart muscle) may occur.
The heart muscle needs this continuous supply of oxygen and nutrients to function.
A heart attack occurs when a coronary artery becomes suddenly blocked, stopping the flow of blood to the heart muscle and damaging it.
The warning signs of a heart attack include:
• Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
• Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
• Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
• Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
So what can you do to keep your heart healthy during the holidays?
• Avoid prolonged exposure to the cold. When you do go outside, dress in layers and keep warm. If the driveway needs to shoveled, hire someone to do it instead of doing it yourself, especially if you have coronary artery disease.
• Avoid stress. As fun as the holidays are, we all know they can be anxiety-producing. Don’t worry about doing everything perfectly. Skip the marathon baking session and, instead, bake a batch or two with your grandson. Let your out-of-town guests treat you to dinner at a restaurant rather than insisting on making every meal yourself. It is also important to limit your financial stress. So, instead of showering people with expensive gifts, find more meaningful ways to spread the holiday cheer.
• Know when to stop. Eating food releases many hormones into the bloodstream, which can increase the heart rate and blood pressure, creating an extra burden on the heart. A big meal can also adversely affect the heart by spiking insulin levels, which decreases the normal relaxation of the coronary arteries.
• Limit alcohol. A drink or two is fine, but binge drinking can be especially dangerous for those at risk of a heart attack. It can lead to atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm in which disorganized electrical signals cause the heart’s two upper chambers to contract irregularly. That, in turn, increases the risk of heart failure, heart attacks and stroke.
• Stay on track. In the hustle and bustle of the holiday, it’s easy to skip your doctor’s appointment or forget to take your medication. In reality, this is the time of year when you must be most vigilant about your health.
• Don’t delay. If you feel chest pain or other symptoms, call 911. Don’t postpone treatment because you’re worried about spoiling the fun.
• Catch your breath. Yes, you’re busy. But take some time to head outside for a short walk and a little sunshine. Sneak in 10 minutes of yoga. Spend time in prayer or meditation. Skip that holiday party you were dreading and spend a quiet night at home watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The best present you can give to yourself — and to your loved ones — is to take care of yourself. To schedule an appointment to discuss any heart health concerns you may have, call us at 419-660-6946.
Dr. Chetan Hampole is board-certified in cardiovascular disease. He is a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist and Fisher-Titus Cardiology Division Director at the Snyder/White Heart & Vascular Center.