The holidays are a time for good food, gifts, and festivity, but several factors make this season a prime time for heart attacks too.
One study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and Tufts University, found that heart-related deaths increase by about 5% during the end of December and New Year celebrations.
Another study, conducted by researchers in Sweden, found that the risk of a heart attack was 37% higher on Christmas Eve, 15% higher on Christmas Day, and 20% higher on New Years compared to other dates.
As you can see, the numbers indicate a correlation between holiday celebrations and cardiovascular events, but why? Experts aren’t entirely sure, but several factors may contribute, including:
- Cold weather
- High sodium foods
- Alcoholic beverages
- Less exercise
- Weight gain
- Seasonal stress
There’s also some evidence to suggest people are less likely to visit the hospital during the holidays. When spending time with loved ones or participating in non-work-related activities, individuals are more likely to ignore the potential warning signs of a heart attack and put off medical care until later.
There’s no way to prevent heart attacks or other heart-related problems entirely, but there are steps you can take to protect your cardiovascular health.
1.) If you live in a cold climate, bundle up. Freezing temperatures negatively affect your heart’s function. Cold weather causes your blood vessels to constrict, raising your blood pressure and causing your blood to clot more easily. In addition, spending time outside shoveling snow or scraping ice off your car places an extra burden on your heart.
You probably can’t avoid going outside altogether, but you can make an effort to stay warm. Before leaving home, put on thick, moisture-wicking socks, long pants, a long-sleeve shirt, a scarf, and gloves. Make sure to cover your ears, too, with a hat or hood.
2.) Make time to de-stress and recenter. The holidays are a stressful time of year. Add a global pandemic into the mix and they’re even more so. Even if you won’t be spending time with friends or family in person, seasonal activities like buying gifts, sending out holiday cards, and preparing meals take a mental and emotional toll.
If you find yourself feeling stressed out or overwhelmed, set aside at least half an hour for “me time.” Read a book, take a nap, meditate, or watch your favorite television show. Don’t forget to turn off notifications on your smartphone or computer.
Relaxing for at least 30 minutes a day offers various health benefits, including a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure, less muscle tension, and improved focus.
3.) Establish a sleep routine. If you get less than seven or eight hours of sleep each night, it’s time to implement a schedule that allows for additional Z’s. A recent study published in the American Heart Association (AHA) journal Circulation found that adults with the healthiest sleep patterns were 42% less likely to experience heart failure, regardless of other risk factors.
Getting more sleep during the holiday season is a great idea, but it isn’t always easy. A 2018 survey conducted by SleepCycle found that 53% of Americans lose sleep during the month of December due to –– you guessed it –– “holiday stress.”
Even so, making a few simple changes can help you rest easier. Healthline recommends avoiding caffeine in the afternoon and evening, waking up and going to bed at regularly scheduled times, and avoiding alcohol. For 6 additional sleep tips from the Mayo Clinic, click here.
4.) Get a flu shot. Getting a flu shot is one of the easiest ways to protect yourself and your loved ones this holiday season. A flu shot won’t necessarily keep you from getting sick, but it can significantly lower your risk.
What’s more, if you have a history of heart attacks or heart disease, a flu shot may protect you from further complications. The CDC says vaccination is often associated with a lower risk of some cardiac events. Plus, viral infections are known to put stress on your heart. A flu shot provides an extra line of defense.
5.) Eat and drink in moderation. Nothing says 'abundance and joy' like a holiday table overflowing with rich, indulgent dishes and a variety of sugary treats. It can be hard to turn down another helping, but over-consumption can result in elevated levels of salt, sugar, and fat in your bloodstream. Help your body process those holiday delights with smaller portions and conscious consumption.
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol also increases your risk of heart-related health problems. For example, research suggests that binge drinking –– where you drink multiple alcoholic beverages in a short period of time –– is associated with atrial fibrillation, a type of abnormal heart rhythm. This alone increases the risk of a heart attack, stroke, or heart failure. As a rule of thumb, drink a glass of water following each alcoholic beverage consumed.
6.) Take symptoms seriously. If you experience any symptoms of a heart attack, including fatigue, lightheadedness, chest pain, or trouble breathing, seek emergency medical care right away. This rule applies even if you suspect your symptoms are the result of another issue. Your health and well-being matter. Don’t feel bad about disrupting holiday celebrations. Your life is a gift, so do everything you can to protect it.
Cardiovascular events may be more common at the end of the year, but that doesn’t mean you need to worry or feel anxious. Seasonal celebrations like Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa can actually benefit your health.
We hope you stay safe and healthy all season long. From all of us at Harbor Clinical to you and yours, Happy Holidays!