‘Tis the season for gingerbread, candy canes, presents, snowmen, joy, good cheer… and, apparently, heart attacks! Yes, according to the American Heart Association, more heart attacks occur during the holidays than any other time of year (with Christmas logging the most heart attacks per day annually!). Take extra good care of your heart this year and make your holiday one of stories not statistics. Read on to find out how:
- Stay warm: When it’s cold, your arteries constrict to preserve heat; the flow of oxygenated blood to and from the heart is thusly decreased, forcing the heart muscle to work harder. Sudden temperature changes (e.g. stepping out into the cold or participating in the polar plunge) can trigger a heart attack in predisposed persons. Additionally, prolonged exposure to the cold can result in frostbite and/or hypothermia, causing tissue death and even freezing the heart muscle so it can’t contract. Bundle up!
- Don’t overdo it: There are so many winter sports–skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, tubing, and my personal favorite, ice skating! While many of these activities are wonderful ways to get exercise, they can do more harm than good. Since your heart is already strained by the chilly temperature, it is easy to overexert yourself and inadvertently trigger dangerous arrhythmias, arterial spasms, and consequent cardiac ischemia. Be careful!
- Follow the rules: The holidays present lots of temptations and distractions. It’s easy to get caught up in the bustle and forget to take your meds, or skip your workout, or accidentally eat that thing you’re banned from. Don’t! Set reminders for yourself on your phone, find a buddy to hold you accountable, put up sticky notes, whatever–as long as you’re following doctor’s orders. They really do know best!
- Take precautions: At Christmas, we exchange germs as well as gifts. The flu is awful for everyone, but it can be especially harmful to those with heart disease. Ask your cardiologist if you’re healthy enough for a flu shot. If you are not, stay away from sick people and wash your hands frequently in order to avoid contracting the influenza virus. You should also inform your cardiologist of planned air travel and intended alcohol consumption, as they can respectively increase the risk of blood clots and mimic feelings of warmth. If you do fly or drink, take the necessary precautions like blood thinners and extra coats. It is better to be safe than sorry!
- Minimize stress: With family reunions, Christmas shopping, and airport lines, the holidays can take an emotional toll on us as well. Emotional stress causes physical stress, notably a raise in heart rate and blood pressure due to adrenaline release. Severe emotions including stress can trigger chest pain (stable angina), palpitations, and ‘broken heart syndrome’, a type of cardiomyopathy where part of the heart enlarges temporarily; a heart attack, stroke, or cardiac arrest could result. Deal with stress immediately, or you may become reliant on maladaptive coping mechanisms such as alcoholism, drug addiction, and/or eating disorders, all of which will further damage your heart.
- Be aware: Take time to check in with yourself. Register how you’re feeling and act accordingly. If snow shovelling’s got you tired, take a break. If your family won’t bug off, get some alone time and breathe. If you’re cold, put on some gloves. If you’re feeling a bit peckish, eat a festive snack. If you experience chest pain or any other symptoms of a heart attack, call 911 immediately.
Thank you for reading! Have a happy and healthy holidays!