Amid all the sparkle and joy of the holiday season, it’s an unfortunate truth that it can also be a tragic time for many. Researchers have found that incidences of deadly heart attacks spike around Christmas and New Year’s Day. Specifically, a 2004 study by researchers at the University of California, San Diego and Tufts University found that heart-related deaths increase by nearly 5% during the holidays. The phenomenon has even earned its own name—the Merry Christmas Coronary.
The first question, of course, is why this happens. Doctors have long known that cold weather is hard on the heart. Very cold temperatures are thought to affect the heart by increasing blood pressure and also increasing the chances of blood clotting.
But cold weather alone does not explain the spike. According to the 2004 study, the number of cardiac deaths is higher on Dec. 25 than on any other day of the year, second highest on Dec. 26, and third highest on Jan. 1. What’s more, holiday heart attacks happen at the same rate in balmy places like Los Angeles as they do in chilly northern Ohio.
One theory is that people don’t want to disrupt festivities, so they ignore symptoms they otherwise might respond to. It’s also possible that out-of-town travelers might take longer to find medical care, as they are unfamiliar with the area.
But it’s also likely that other factors play a role. During the holidays, we tend to eat too much and sometimes drink too much alcohol. And then there’s the sneaky culprit that plays a part in so many health challenges—stress. We all know what can happen when you put two dozen relatives together in a house for a day. If your heart is already weak, it can all be simply too much to take.
So what can you do to keep your heart healthy during the holidays?
- Avoid prolonged exposure to the cold. Hire someone to shovel your drive. When you do go outside, dress in layers and keep warm.
- Avoid stress. As fun as the holidays are, we all know they can be anxiety-producing. Don’t worry about doing everything perfectly. Skip the marathon baking session and, instead, bake a batch or two with your grandson. Let your out-of-town guests treat you to dinner at a restaurant rather than insisting on making every meal yourself.
- Know when to stop. An unusually heavy meal may increase the risk of heart attack by about four times within two hours after eating, according to the American Heart Association. Eating food releases many hormones into the bloodstream, which can increase the heart rate and blood pressure, creating an extra burden on the heart. A big meal can also adversely affect the heart by spiking insulin levels, which decreases the normal relaxation of the coronary arteries.
- Limit alcohol. A drink or two is fine, but binge drinking can be especially dangerous for those at risk of a heart attack. It can lead to atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm in which disorganized electrical signals cause the heart’s two upper chambers to contract irregularly. That, in turn, increases the risk of heart failure, heart attacks and stroke.
- Stay on track. In the hustle and bustle of the holiday, it’s easy to skip your doctor’s appointment or forget to take your medication. In reality, this is the time of year when you must be most vigilant about your health.
- Get a flu shot. Infection and fever puts extra stress on the heart. No one needs that at this time of year.
- Make it about the memories. A report by the American Psychological Association found that of the eight leading causes of stress, five were financial. You don’t need to overspend on gifts to show your holiday cheer.
- Don’t delay. If you feel chest pain or other symptoms, call 911. Don’t postpone treatment because you’re worried about spoiling the fun.
- Catch your breath. Yes, you’re busy. But take some time to head outside for a short walk and a little sunshine. Sneak in 10 minutes of yoga. Spend time in prayer or meditation. Skip that holiday party you were dreading and spend a quiet night at home watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The best present you can give to yourself—and to your loved ones—is to take care of yourself. To schedule an appointment to discuss any health concerns you may have, call us at 419-660-6946.