Holiday heart hazard

Many people are aware that the winter holiday season - Christmas and New Year in many countries - can be extremely stressful as well as exciting. Fewer people realise that this is also a time of high heart attackThe death of a section of heart muscle caused by an interruption in its blood supply. Also called a myocardial infarction. risk.

Heart attacks don't just occur at random. They are more common at certain times than others - cardiac deaths peak on Monday mornings, for example, and during periods of cold weather. [1]

The winter holiday periods are also times of heightened danger. Scientists have found that heart attackThe death of a section of heart muscle caused by an interruption in its blood supply. Also called a myocardial infarction. deaths are higher over the winter holiday season, even in relatively warm climates such as California [2] - so something more than cold weather is responsible.

According to a study across the whole of the USA, which has many different climates, there are two distinct winter peaks in cardiac deaths - one at Christmas and one on New Year's Day. [3]

A number of factors may act together to produce these peaks:

  • The cold weather, associated with increased blood pressure and measures of cardiac stressRelating to injury or concern. [4]
  • The emotional stressRelating to injury or concern. of family get-togethers [2]
  • Financial pressures from entertaining, travel and present giving [2]
  • Over-indulgence in food and drink [2,3,5] - more fatty meals, higher salt consumption, excess alcohol and weight gain due to eating more
  • Delay in seeking medical attention over the holidays, combined with reduced medical staffing levels [5]
  • Lack of sunlight in northern climates, leading to vitamin D deficiency, which is known to be linked to an increased risk of heart attacks [6]
  • Increased respiratory infections and indoor air pollutants from open fires, linked with raised blood pressure and an increase in cardiac problems. [5]

Knowing that the holiday season is a time of higher heart risk gives you the opportunity to take countermeasures, which may be especially important if you already have heart disease risk factors. Steps you can take to lessen your chances of succumbing to the so-called 'Merry Christmas coronaryRelating to the arteries supplying the heart itself.' or the 'Happy New Year heart attackThe death of a section of heart muscle caused by an interruption in its blood supply. Also called a myocardial infarction.' include: [5]

  • If you develop an episode of chest pain, or any other worrying symptoms, don't delay - call an ambulance straight away
  • Avoid known heart attackThe death of a section of heart muscle caused by an interruption in its blood supply. Also called a myocardial infarction. triggers, such as going out in extreme cold or sudden physical exertion; in particular, avoid the two together - so no shovelling snow
  • Don't overeat or over-indulge in unhealthy foods - refrain from high-fatOne of the three main food constituents (with carbohydrate and protein), and the main form in which energy is stored in the body. meals and minimise your salt intake
  • Don't drink alcohol to excess
  • Avoid emotional stressRelating to injury or concern. as far as possible and, if you can, take time out to combat it - for example, go for a walk instead of getting angry or irritable with difficult relatives
  • If you have an open fire or wood-burning stove, make sure that the room is well-ventilated.

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References

  1. Arntz HR, Müller-Nordhorn J, Willich SN. Cold Monday mornings prove dangerous: epidemiology of sudden cardiac death. Curr Opin Crit Care. 2001 Jun;7(3):139-44.
  2. Kloner RA, Poole WK, Perritt RL. When throughout the year is coronaryRelating to the arteries supplying the heart itself. death most likely to occur? A 12-year population-based analysis of more than 220 000 cases. Circulation. 1999; 100:1630-1634.
  3. Phillips DP, Jarvinen JR, Abramson IS, Phillips RR. Cardiac mortality is higher around Christmas and New Year's than at any other time: the holidays as a risk factor for death. Circulation. 2004; 110:3781-3788.
  4. Spencer FA, Goldberg RJ, Becker RC, Gore JM. Seasonal distribution of acuteHas a sudden onset. myocardial infarctionDeath of an area of heart muscle due to poor blood supply. in the second National Registry of Myocardial Infarction. J Am Coll Cardiol. 1998; 31:1226-1233.
  5. Kloner RA. The 'Merry Christmas coronaryRelating to the arteries supplying the heart itself.' and 'Happy New Year heart attackThe death of a section of heart muscle caused by an interruption in its blood supply. Also called a myocardial infarction.' phenomenon. Circulation. 2004; 110:3744-3745.
  6. Giovannucci E, Liu Y, Hollis BW, Rimm EB. 25-hydroxyvitamin D and risk of myocardial infarctionDeath of an area of heart muscle due to poor blood supply. in men: a prospective study. Arch Intern Med. 2008; Jun 9; 168(11):1174-80.