In emergency rooms from Los Angeles to New York City to Calgary, Canada, researchers have noticed a heart-threatening seasonal trend: Heart attacks and heart-related deaths rise when winter rolls around. Whether you’re shoveling snow, taking a winter stroll, coping with holiday-season stress, or reaching for another Christmas cookie or glass of champagne, here’s how to protect your ticker from surprising winter dangers.
Winter Heart Threats
Shoveling snow or even walking through deep, wet snow can trigger chest pain or even a heart attack because the effort increases the workload on your heart, according to the American Heart Association. But that’s just one reason for the uptick in heart problems in winter—like the 8 percent increase in heart attacks on snow days discovered by University of Calgary researchers, and the 25 percent increase at one New York City emergency department during the city’s famous Blizzard of 1996.
It turns out that cold weather poses a heart threat even if you don’t shovel snow, due to seasonal body changes. Research has found that blood pressure rises a bit in winter, as Mother Nature tries to keep you warm by narrowing your blood vessels and increasing blood flow. Levels of cholesterol rise, as do levels of inflammatory compounds. Researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York say this may be nature’s attempt to fight off cold and flu viruses, but it could also threaten your heart by increasing plaque in artery walls. Your blood gets thicker in winter as well, which means clots form more easily.
Then there’s “holiday heart syndrome”—dubbed the Merry Christmas Coronary and Happy New Year Heart Attack in one study. Researchers who analyzed 53 million deaths over 26 years found that the calendar’s top days for cardiac deaths are December 25, followed by December 26 and New Year’s Day. One older but widely cited University of Southern California study even found that heart-related deaths were 33 percent higher in December and January than in summer months, with the biggest increase between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Holiday heart syndrome culprits range from seasonal stress to big meals, excess alcohol, and even a reluctance to get emergency help right away for symptoms that might—or might not—be a heart attack.
6 Ways to Protect Your Heart in Winter
- Stay warm. Becoming overly chilly—a condition called hypothermia in which your body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit—can lead to chest pain if you have heart disease. It can be deadly if you have a condition called congestive heart failure. Older adults may not notice how cold they are. Dress in layers for extra warmth. And, don’t forget boots, gloves, and a warm hat—plenty of heat escapes through the head!
- Get smart about shoveling snow. Every shovelful of this cold white stuff you lift boosts blood pressure. Reduce the extra workload on your heart by using a small shovel or a snow thrower, and by pushing the snow when you can. Take frequent breaks to give your heart a rest. Notice how you feel: If you’re tired or out of breath or don’t feel right, stop. Don’t eat a big meal right before or after; it could add to the strain on your heart. And, skip alcohol before, during, and after shoveling—it can make you feel warmer than you really are.
- Don’t overindulge at holiday celebrations. High-fat foods plus alcohol may contribute to seasonal heart trouble.
- Schedule some stress-soothing “me time.” Keep tabs on your stress levels and deploy your favorite calming techniques. Shopping, cooking, late nights, crowded schedules, travel, and family dynamics can all add tension to the season of good cheer.
- Keep following your doctor’s plan. Winter may pose a higher risk for heart problems if you’re a heart attack survivor, have heart disease, or are over age 65.
- Call 911 right away. Some people delay getting emergency help during the holidays—a decision that could be deadly. Call 911 if you or a loved one has signs of a heart attack. These include discomfort or pain in the chest or upper body, such as the arms, neck, back, jaw, or stomach; shortness of breath; and sweating, nausea, or lightheadedness.