How can I avoid a holiday heart attack?

The risk for heart attack can increase during the holidays, especially if you ignore the symptoms. Watch as Bill Yarbrough, MD, of Trident Medical Center explains what the risks are and how to avoid them. 
How can I avoid a holiday heart attack?
Turkeys aren't the only ones stressing out on Thanksgiving, and Christmas can get hearts racing, too -- but not necessarily in a good way. Indeed, it is something of a Christmas miracle that Santa did not die long again from a heart attack.

When stress levels go up, heart attacks go up, too -- and it is hard to find a time that is more stressful than the holidays. Holiday-related stress makes Thanksgiving through New Year's the most popular time of year for heart attacks.

During the holidays, people engage in more unhealthy behaviors. They tend to eat more high-fat foods, eat more in general, drink more liquor and smoke more cigarettes.

An estimated 50 percent of the heart attacks that happen in the United States occur during the winter months.

If Christmas and New Year’s sometimes feel hazardous to your health, well, they actually can be. Research studies have found that more fatal heart attacks occur at Christmas and New Year’s than at any other time of the year. Researchers are not entirely sure why this is true, but it doesn’t seem to be related to cold temperatures, as the effect is also observable in warmer areas of the United States.

Some theorize that more fatal heart attacks occur at Christmas and New Year’s because of the drastic changes in routines that can take place during this time. The following tips may help preserve your heart health during the winter holidays:

  • Seek help immediately. If you have heart attack symptoms (chest, jaw, or arm pain; sudden, severe nausea or fatigue, etc.) dial 911 right away. Do not feel embarrassed or concerned about disrupting a gathering with family or friends. Your safety will be far more important to them.
  • Don’t let the fact that you are traveling delay care. Over the holidays, you may be traveling and not know where to seek medical care. Do not delay seeking help for this reason; seconds count when you are having a heart attack. Dial 911, and tell the operator and paramedics that you think you may be having a heart attack.
  • Maintain your diet. It’s okay to indulge a little and enjoy holiday foods. However, do not stray too far from your usual diet. Doing so may increase the amount of saturated fats, cholesterol, and sodium that you consume and may put you at greater risk of a heart attack.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise is a strong tool for fighting heart disease. And while researchers aren’t sure, they suspect that the many changes in lifestyle routines that take place over the holidays may cause the spike in heart attacks.
  • Drink in moderation. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Typically, the recommendation is for no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. Alcohol consumption can affect blood pressure.
  • Manage stress. Stress can increase your risk of a heart attack. Let go of ideas of perfection, relax, and enjoy the holidays. Building in time for yourself can help: take a walk or warm bath, read a book, do breathing exercises for relaxation or meditate.

It's true that researchers have discovered a spike in heart attacks during winter and particularly during the holidays—peaking on Christmas and New Year's. No one is sure why. Cold weather is a known trigger for heart attacks, as arteries constrict more easily and blood clots form more readily when the temperature dips. But there are other factors at play. People might be more likely to ignore heart attack symptoms during festivities, for instance. Overexertion from snow shoveling can put too much stress on older hearts. Emotional stress—not uncommon during the holidays—may contribute, too. Finally, binge drinking can cause abnormal heart rhythms, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

To help prevent a "holiday heart attack," avoid emotional stress and strenuous or excessive physical activity. Limit your alcohol intake, and try to eat healthy, small portions. Remember, the best way to avoid heart issues is to maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, and routinely see your doctor.

If you have chest pain or other symptoms of a heart attack, have someone call 911 right away. Don't delay.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.