Why Winter Is the Worst Season for Your Heart
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Why Winter Is the Worst Season for Your Heart

Cold weather could up your heart attack and stroke risk.

In the United States, more than 700,000 people have a heart attack and almost 800,000 experience a stroke each year. And these staggering numbers are met with the realization that about one-sixth of these cases are fatal.

While cardiac episodes can happen during any time of year, new research suggests cold temperatures and strong winds may increase your heart attack risk. An October 2018 study published in JAMA Cardiology looked at data from 274,000 Swedish adults who experienced heart attacks between 1998 and 2013. Researchers compared the date of each heart attack and location of every patient to the weather reported on that day. Study results suggest cardiac risks were greatest when the temperature dropped below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Risks decreased by 3 percent with each 13-degree increase. Lower air pressure, fewer hours of sunshine and strong winds were also associated with an increase in risk.

Why does colder weather seem to increase heart attack risk? “There are a lot of different theories,” says Benjamin Yang, MD, a cardiologist at Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree, Colorado. “Possibly due to the cold temperatures, but no one is absolutely sure why it happens.”

Recognize weather’s role in your heart health
Frigid temperatures cause blood vessels to narrow, which makes our bodies work harder to pump blood to the heart, increasing blood pressure. A spike in blood pressure ups a person’s risk of heart attack or stroke, especially if other risk factors—like obesity, high cholesterol or diabetes—are at play.

A combination of low temperatures and overexertion, like shoveling snow—which requires more oxygen be delivered to the heart—can also increase heart attack and stroke risks. A February 2017 study suggests that heart attack risks in men may increase the day after heavy snowfall.

Men were 16 percent more likely to have a heart attack after a snowfall of at least 8 inches, when compared to a day without snow. Men were also one-third more likely to die from a heart attack following a snowfall of 8 inches than they might be after a day without snow showers. The study didn’t show these elevated risks among women, although the reasons for this are unclear.

Beware of other factors
Cold weather isn’t all to blame. Research out of Los Angeles, California, suggests the mortality rate of heart attacks and strokes increases even in areas that don’t experience a drastic temperature change during the winter.

So, what are other factors? Holiday stress and seasonal depression may play a role. “Depression has a strong correlation with a lot of myocardial infarction,” Yang says. “An increased amount of stress means you have an increased risk of having a heart attack,” he adds.

A December 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association suggests the risk to your heart around the holidays may not depend on the temperature or the season. The study, which used data spanning 25 years, showed a 4.2 percent spike in cardiac deaths around Christmas in New Zealand—where the holiday is celebrated in the summertime.

Other theories include lack of exercise and an unhealthy diet during the winter months, along with excess drinking during the holiday season, which puts extra stress on the heart.

Know the signs
Whether you’re feeling the joy or a bit blue during the holidays, it’s important to know the symptoms of stroke and heart attack, and take action if you think you’re experiencing any of them.

Symptoms vary from one person to the next, but Yang says stroke warning signs include:

  • Loss of vision
  • Balance issues
  • Weakness on one side
  • Drooping of the face on only one side

Heart attack signs include:

  • Chest discomfort that lasts more than a few minutes, but may go away and then return
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck or jaw
  • Shortness of breath,  with or without chest pain or pressure
  • Cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness

Boost your heart health
Take these precautions during the winter months to reduce your heart attack and stroke risk:

  • Dress warmly if you plan to spend time outside.
  • Don’t overexert yourself—take a break from shoveling snow if you need to.
  • Try to avoid stressful situations during the holidays. If that’s not possible, learn ways to manage your stress.
  • Stick to your prescribed treatment plan. Pack your meds if you travel, bringing along the whole bottle in case of delays.
  • Get regular exercise and eat healthy, allowing for the occasional indulgence.

While you may be able to take precautions to prevent heart attack and stroke during the winter months, heart disease prevention and management is a year-round commitment, says Yang. Diet, exercise, managing your cholesterol and keeping your blood pressure in a healthy range go a long way in preventing heart disease all year long.

This content was updated on November 8, 2018.