Winter means cooler temperatures and the holiday season, but did you know it also brings an increased risk of heart attack? Studies show the risk of dying from a heart attack is greater in the winter than at any other time of year, with cardiac mortality at its highest in December and January, according to a 2004 study. While the reasons for the increase in heart attacks are complex – including changes in hormone, stress and exertion levels – you can take steps to reduce your risk.
"There are several reasons heart attacks are more frequent in winter", said Dr. Gordon Knight, cardiothoracic surgeon at Des Peres Hospital. "First, during the winter months, changes in hormonal balances put individuals at greater risk for cardiovascular problems. In addition, the colder temperatures cause arteries to tighten, restricting blood flow, reducing oxygen to the heart and causing blood pressure to increase, all of which can set the stage for a heart attack, especially in plaque-clogged arteries."
Dr. Knight also explained that during winter months people tend to exercise and do yard work and other physical activity earlier in the day. Since blood pressure rises naturally in the morning, increased exertion early in the day can contribute to heart attacks. The flu season also may play a role in the increased number of heart attacks. The influenza virus may trigger inflammation of the heart, which may cause a heart attack.
He noted that the holidays may play a role in the increased number of heart attacks. People overindulge in food and alcohol, which often leads to weight gain and contributes to the risk for heart attack. Alcohol has its own heart risks, increasing blood pressure, contributing to abnormal heart rhythms and increasing the risk of depression. The hustle and bustle of the holiday season can also be a source of stress, with many people pressed for time and money. Anxiety and depression tend to increase during this time of year, further increasing the risk of heart attack.
Though there are several reasons heart attacks are more common in winter, you can take steps to reduce your risk.
First, Dr. Knight recommends avoiding over-exertion and talking to your doctor about appropriate physical activity. Winter chores such as shoveling snow can be particularly strenuous.
"If you must shovel snow, take frequent breaks and be sure to bundle up and stay warm," said Knight.
Experts recommend dressing in three layers: an inner layer that wicks away moisture, a middle layer that insulates the body and a top layer that repels rain and water.
"If you are over 50 or have a history of health problems, get someone to shovel the snow for you. If you are sore after shoveling snow, take symptoms seriously, as signs of a heart attack may be mistaken for a pulled muscle," said Knight.
The holidays provide ample opportunities to eat and drink, but try to do so in moderation. "Avoid caffeine and nicotine, both of which can exacerbate heart problems, and consider taking at least 400 IU (international units) of vitamin D each day," said Knight. "Low levels of vitamin D have been found more often in heart attack patients."
Finally, be sure to get your flu shot, which can cut your risk of heart attack in half.