6 Ways To Prevent a Holiday Heart Attack

6 Ways To Prevent a Holiday Heart Attack

The holidays are a time of festivities with family and friends, making merry and, for some, increased risk of a heart attack. In fact, a study presented at a 2013 European Society of Cardiology meeting found that death from heart disease tends to be higher during January and February. We talked with cardiologists Frank Arena, MD, of Lakeview Regional Medical Center, Hoang Nguyen, DO, of Regional Medical Center and Taral Patel, MD, of TriStar Summit Medical Center about potential heart attack triggers during the winter season and what you can do to keep your ticker going strong.

1. Be kind to your body
According to Dr. Patel, those at increased risk include people with diagnosed heart disease, those who have already had a heart attack, been treated with stents or had bypass surgeries, smokers and people with diabetes. But even if this doesn’t describe you, your heart may not be as healthy as you think. “A heart attack is not a singular event,” says Dr. Arena. “It’s the end result of the culmination of a series of events. You have a heart attack because you’ve spent years and years building up plaque around the arteries.”

Maintain good health: Healthy eating habits and regular exercise throughout the year can help keep problems at bay. If you have diabetes, be sure that it’s under control. Smokers could give themselves the best gift of all by kicking the habit.

2. Take a chill pill
While the holiday season is a celebratory time of the year, it can also bring about added stress from strained family relationships and overstretched finances.

“One thing that surprises me is how much stress and emotion play into it,” says Patel. “Mental and emotional stress is a huge factor that I think we downplay.” Some may suffer from broken heart syndrome: “A sudden stressful event can cause a person to have chest pain and a sudden heart attack,” says Patel. Stress overload can also make it tough to get enough sleep, which can fuel overeating. “Insomnia makes adrenaline levels go up, blood pressure goes up, we get carb cravings,” says Arena. “You just continue to make poor choices in the moment because you aren’t sleeping.”

Stress less: Take time to relax; try meditation to calm down. Make sleep a priority. You’ll be more clear-headed for handling family issues and making spending decisions. Get enough shut-eye to prevent spikes in the stress hormone cortisol, which increases appetite.

3. Maintain your medicationsI
If you regularly take prescription drugs to treat a chronic condition like heart disease, continue to do so during the holidays. “We’re very busy during the holidays,” says Dr. Nguyen. “People are doing things they shouldn’t be doing and eating things they shouldn’t be eating. They forget to take their medication; they forget to check in with their doctor. Things like that tend to lead to heart attacks.”

Be prepared: Don’t rely on your memory for taking your pills; separate them into pill containers labeled by day. Set reminders in your phone. If you’re traveling, take the entire bottle of each medication with you. If your return trip is delayed, you won’t run out. You’ll also have a list of your medications and dosage if needed.

4. Take it easy on the alcohol
More partying means the toasting flutes and champagne will be in full force. While celebrating in moderation is ok, going overboard is not. “If you’re drinking a fair amount, say, more than two or three drinks or anything enough to give you a hangover, you’re creating a lot of adrenaline,” says Arena. This can lead to holiday heart syndrome, or atrial fibrillation, which is characterized by a fast, irregular heartbeat. “It’s contributed to by the buildup of adrenaline that comes when people overindulge and become dehydrated, which makes their hearts start pounding,” says Arena. “The adrenaline is what leads to heart issues. The same triggers that cause you to go into atrial fibrillation can cause a heart attack as well.”

Tame the tipples: Avoid drinking on an empty stomach. Don’t have more than one drink per hour, and alternate drinks with water to stay hydrated. Skip sugary drinks; it’s more difficult to tell how much alcohol you’re imbibing. Stay festive by switching to seltzer water and lime or mixers—sans the alcohol. If you have heart disease risk factors, you’ll want to take extra precautions to avoid holiday heart syndrome: Limit yourself to no more than two drinks per day, avoid overeating (it may trigger a reflex response that can cause an arrhythmia) and avoid caffeine.

5. Beware of cold-weather activities
If you’re tempted to join the family for a sled ride or feel compelled to shovel snow, you may want to think twice, especially if you’re not physically active throughout the year. “Winter activities can increase stress hormone levels and blood pressure,” warns Patel, adding stress on the vessel wall. “This is what causes the rupture, which causes the heart attack,” he says. Cooler temperatures can also play a role. “Even if you’re not shoveling snow and it’s not super cold, your arteries constrict a bit to keep your core warm,” Patel says. “That also increases blood pressure and shear stress [on the blood vessels].”

Know your limits: If you’re not used to lots of strenuous activity limit your time outside, dress warmly and don’t overexert yourself.

6. Don’t ignore the symptoms
Maybe you’ve just sat down for Christmas dinner or have begun exchanging gifts—and you’re not feeling quite right. Don’t worry about ruining the moment—it will only become worse if you’re having a heart attack. Nguyen says heart attack symptoms like chest pain, discomfort or shortness of breath require immediate medical attention. “You should never ignore symptoms when it comes to the heart,” he adds.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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