‘Tis the season for joy and cheers … and cardiac events. Okay, I don’t want to dampen your high spirits during the holidays but it has been shown again and again that there is a distinct spike in the number of heart attacks during December-January, particular around Christmas and New Year. According to WebMD, there has been generally an overall 5% increase heart-related deaths during the holiday season based on mortality statistics from 1973 to 2001. Let us look at the reasons why.
Is it the weather?
The winter season does have some adverse effects on our heart health. The cold weather causes blood vessels to constrict, which in turn elevates blood pressure. Blood clots also occur more easily. Extremely cold temperatures and physical exertion put too much burden on the heart. These are the ingredients for coronary heart disease and heart attacks.
Is it the holiday season?
A study published in circulation reported:
And this pattern is not only true in the cold northern parts of the US. The same trend has been observed in Los Angeles where winters are not necessarily freezing. Some hypotheses put forward by health experts are:
- People delay consulting their doctors despite feeling ill until after the holidays, mainly to avoid disrupting holiday festivities and travel plans.
- GPs are not easily available whereas hospitals and emergency clinics are short-staffed during the holiday. These can lead again to delay in treatment as well as decrease in the quality of care of those who decide to go to the hospital.
- The holiday season is simply a very unhealthy season when people eat too much, drink too much, forego on exercise, get too much stress and get too little sleep.
However, all the risk factors that may lead to increased heart attacks at this time of the year are actually modifiable. Dr. Robert A. Kloner, a researcher at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles and a professor at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California gives us the following tips:
- Pile on the layers. Try to avoid exposure to very cold temperatures. Dress warmly.
- Take a load off. Steer clear of heart stressors, including too much physical exertion (especially snow shoveling), anger, and emotional stress.
- Make good choices. Avoid excess salt and alcohol. Too much drinking — for example, binge drinking — can lead to atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm in which disorganized electrical signals cause the heart’s two upper chambers to contract irregularly. Atrial fibrillation increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart failure.
- Get a shot. Consider getting a flu vaccination. Infection and fever put extra stress on the heart.
- Breathe. Go indoors during air pollution alerts but try to avoid breathing smoke from wood-burning fireplaces. If you’re visiting another home during the holidays, sit as far away as you can from a burning fireplace. Ultra-fine particles in the air can be bad for the heart.
- Get help. If you feel chest pain or other symptoms, call 911 for emergency help. The stakes are high. So give yourself and your family a gift this season. Don’t postpone treatment because you don’t want to spoil the holiday merrymaking.