Six Holiday Habits That Cause Heart Attacks

Six Holiday Habits That Cause Heart Attacks

Some traditions make for merriment and fun – but these six can literally stop your heart.

“Christmas Coronary.” It sounds festive, doesn’t it? Like something you’d hear in a holiday movie. Unfortunately … no. The term was coined by doctors who noticed a disturbing pattern: Heart attacks and heart-related problems peaking every year over the winter holiday season — specifically on Christmas, the day after Christmas and on New Year’s Day.

Of course, health emergencies at this time of year seem to stick out more in our minds — the dad who had a heart attack just after the family dinner or the grandfather who experienced severe chest pain after shoveling snow. But it’s more than just anecdotal. Studies show that the number of heart attacks increases by over 30% in the winter. This number holds true for all ages (young people can manifest as having dangerous heart rhythms) and genders.

What’s behind this increase? These six stressors specifically surrounding the holidays put us at greater risk:

1. Cold temperatures. Cold weather causes your blood vessels to constrict in your arms and legs, making your heart work harder. It can also cause the blood vessels to your heart to spasm, temporarily depriving the heart of oxygen.

  • What to do: Layer up! Keep your arms, head and feet warm –- these parts of the body tend to be forgotten but can easily get quite cold. Be especially mindful of older family members. The elderly are often less cognizant of the drop in temperature — meaning they don’t notice how cold they really are until they’ve lost significant amounts of body heat.

2. Overexertion. Even those who are sedentary during the rest of the year may increase their physical activity over the holidays -- shoveling snow, trudging through snowdrifts or going sledding with the kids. Suddenly becoming active in the cold weather causes a spike in demand on your heart. In addition, the mere act of lifting a heavy snow shovel increases your blood pressure, which makes someone with heart disease even more at risk of having a heart attack.

  • What to do: Go slowly. If you don’t get regular exercise, please don’t try to tackle that snowy driveway in record time. Ditch the supersized shovel. You’re much better off lifting a smaller shovel more times than struggling to clear the driveway with a giant snow-filled shovel. It’s not only dangerous for your heart but your back, too! Consider a snow blower or give a call to your friendly neighborhood teenager who has the energy to shovel for you. If you’re doing activities with the kids or grandkids, make sure to stay warm, don’t do anything too crazy (you might want to skip that Flexible Flyer® Saucer) and take breaks.

3. Nonstop food feasts. A study from Switzerland showed that in the winter, people had higher blood pressure and cholesterol -- the very factors that drive a heart attack.

  • What to do: I know—the parties, family gatherings and treats are half the fun! And we all need a little fun. You can still enjoy the festivities, albeit with some caveats. Give yourself some boundaries—for example, you’ll only eat two pieces of mom’s special fudge or one piece of apple pie. Or maybe you’ll allow yourself to indulge at one party, but not the other. I try to keep my nutrition in check on weekdays and then allow myself to cheat a little on the weekend. That works for me, but everyone is different so try some strategies to see what works for you.

4. Alcohol. Holiday spirits can lead to “Holiday Heart Syndrome” if you’re not careful. I remember last holiday season taking care of a 34-year-old guy who had come home for the holidays, gone out with his friends and noticed that his heart was suddenly racing. His heart rate was 180 when EMS brought him in. It took hydration and medications to stabilize his heart rate.

  • What to do: Binge drinking for even short periods (just a couple of days over the holidays) has been shown to trigger dangerous heart rhythms, including supraventricular tachycardia or atrial fibrillation – even in totally healthy people. Moderation is key. Anyone can be at risk for holiday heart trouble.

5. Ignoring symptoms. It’s a common excuse: “All the family is here right now” or “I don’t want to spend Christmas Eve in the ER” or “I have 30 guests coming this evening.” Health problems never come at convenient times, and the holidays make those surprises seem even more inconvenient.

  • What to do: Please don’t do this. Don’t let the holidays cause you to ignore symptoms for which you’d seek treatment at any other time of the year. Cardinal signs and symptoms of a heart attack typically include chest pain (like something sitting on, pushing on, or crushing your chest), shortness of breath accompanied by pain radiating down your arm or breaking out into a cold sweat. Also remember that women, people with diabetes and the elderly may have atypical symptoms of nausea, vomiting or just feeling exceptionally fatigued.

6. Catching a bug. ‘Tis the season for gifts, family -- and the flu. A disease like the flu can put excess pressure on your heart -- especially if you already have heart problems -- increasing the risk of a heart attack.

  • What to do: Prevent and treat. Everyone should get the flu vaccine —especially those who are elderly or have chronic medical conditions. Increase your hand hygiene vigilance around flu season. Lastly, if you think you may have the flu, call your doctor early on (within the first 24-48 hours) to see if you could be a candidate for an antiviral medication.

With a little extra caution, you can enjoy the holidays while staying your healthiest. May you keep the holiday spirit in your heart year ‘round, avoid “Holiday Heart Syndrome” and always and forever remain young at heart.

Medically reviewed in May 2019.

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