With snowflakes already flying, the holiday season is just around the corner. And while it’s certainly the time to be merry, it doesn’t mean we get to take a ‘holiday’ from healthy living. According to a study in Circulation and local cardiologists, there’s a definite increase in the number of heart attacks, particularly deadly heart attacks, during the holiday season. It spikes around Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
“We always see more cases of heart attacks around the holidays. There’s no doubt about it. No one knows exactly why that is but we have some thoughts as to what comes into play,” says Dr. Russ Reiss, a Dean & St. Mary’s Cardiac Center surgeon. “What’s interesting is, even in places where it’s warm year-round, there are more heart attacks during the holidays.”
There’s no one reason for the spike in heart attacks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Doctors say it’s likely a combination of factors: cold weather, over-exertion when shoveling, added stress and not paying attention to the warning signs.
Cold weather can affect the body in many ways. It constricts blood vessels, making the space for blood flow smaller. People who encounter problems sometimes have underlying, undiagnosed heart disease. When combined with constricted arteries and extra exertion from shoveling, plaque that’s attached to artery walls can detach and cause a heart attack.
People may not have signs and symptoms in the weeks leading up to the holidays since much of our time is spent inside due to colder temperatures and shorter days. Shoveling snow is very demanding on the body and people who go straight from the couch to their sidewalk can easily over exert themselves.
“When it comes to unplanned strenuous activity, it’s better to spend the $20 or so for a neighbor kid to shovel your sidewalk – don’t try to do it yourself,” advises Dr. Reiss. “This is especially true for the elderly or those who have pre-existing conditions.
Another big concern around the holidays – stress. Not only are you expected to keep up with work and your family, but there’s the added pressure to attend and host holiday gatherings and fit in holiday shopping.
“My recommendation is to reduce stress in advance by planning ahead. We all know the holidays are coming. Plan to shop earlier this year. If you are going to travel, make sure you pay attention to getting other things done ahead of time,” says Dr. Reiss. “Try not to do everything and instead maximize the time you have with immediate family and loved ones. And, manage the people who stress you out.”
Perhaps most importantly, if you regularly exercise now is not the time to “take a holiday” from that routine. Instead, he says you should make exercise one of your top priorities.
Poor food choices also run rampant this time of year. While it may be tempting to try every sweet in the office or every dessert at Thanksgiving, instead choose one or two that will really satisfy you and then watch your portion size.
“There’s nothing wrong with turkey and mashed potatoes but if it’s three servings and five other sides that’s a problem,” says Dr. Reiss.
While the holiday season comes just once a year, it’s a lot longer than you may think. Bad choices now can have a lasting effect.
“It realistically starts around Halloween with people bringing in desserts and candy and it goes through mid-January when all the leftovers and junk are finally out of the house,” says Dr. Reiss. “That’s nearly a quarter of the year!”
Another factor contributing to the spike in heart attacks around the holidays is people ignore what their bodies are telling them. You may be out shopping, at a holiday party or getting together with family to open gifts. If you feel chest pressure, tightness or shortness of breath, you need to get to a hospital immediately.
“If you seek help early, your odds of surviving a heart attack are near 100 percent thanks to our current medical technologies,” says Dr. Reiss. “But sometimes, people will wait up to 7 hours [to seek medical attention]. With a heart attack, it’s possible you will still survive, but heart muscle will be lost and it’s not coming back.”
Keep in mind when it comes to a heart attack, the signs and symptoms aren’t always as depicted on TV or in the movies.
“In general, the classic signs for a man are: chest discomfort, tightness, and pain,” says Dr. Reiss. “These signs also can be present in women, but typically women’s symptoms are different. Women tend to simply not feel well – like they’re having the flu. There might be [a feeling like] indigestion that doesn’t go away, sudden sweating, light headedness or shortness of breath.”
If your chest pain doesn’t go away, you have shortness of breath, feel pain going down your arm or are suddenly sweaty, you need to call 9-1-1 and get to the hospital right away! This is not the time to visit an urgent care; get to an emergency room! Ninety minutes is really all the time you have to get the artery blockage removed without causing permanent damage to your heart.
While a trip to the emergency room isn’t on anyone’s plan for the holiday season, it’s better to be safe and have a false alarm than be sorry.
“Don’t think this is something you’ll deal with at a more convenient time,” adds Dr. Reiss. “Your family would much rather go through an uneventful hospital visit than not have you here with them next year.”