By Glenn Ellis
Amidst all the heart-warming seasonal stories this time of year, a grim fact also exists — several studies have reported an uptick in deaths around Christmas and New Year’s compared to other times throughout the year.
In fact, according to a study published in the Journal Circulation, the top three days for heart attacks are December 25, December 26 and January 1, respectively. Regardless of where we live, researchers have found, we are more susceptible to heart attacks in the winter months, even if it is 72 and sunny in California!
Sometimes referred to as “holiday heart attacks,” the phenomena has been explained through several studies over the years. What researchers have found is that deaths from cardiac and non-cardiac causes often peak during the holiday period.
While researchers don’t know exactly why deaths are more common around the holidays, some possible reasons include changes in diet and alcohol consumption; stress from family interactions, strained finances, travel and entertaining; respiratory problems from burning wood; and lack of attention to the signs and symptoms of a heart attack.
There are many different factors that could play a role. For instance, cold weather can constrict arteries and increase demand on the heart. Additional holiday stress could result in a delayed doctor visit or a patient could break from healthy eating.
So, what can we do to help protect ourselves from a heart attack this holiday?
Don’t put off medical attention – Despite the big family gatherings, office parties and travel plans, if you are not feeling right, don’t wait until after the holidays to get it checked out. Know the signs of a heart attack and talk with your doctor immediately. Taking the right precautions early can help stop a heart attack in its tracks.
Reduce stress – With end of year events, projects at work, parties, shopping, and shorter days, we tend to feel rushed and stressed during this time of the year. Reduce your stress and help give your heart a break by getting in regular exercise and good quality sleep, eat as healthy as you can and try not to overload yourself with multiple commitments.
Try not to overindulge – The holidays are nearly synonymous with indulgence. With many events centered on the food and drinks served, set a plan for yourself to enjoy the food and spirits, while not overindulging. Too much drinking, for example, can trigger atrial fibrillation, which can increase the risk for heart attack and stroke.
Ditch the digging – While we benefit from regular exercise, especially during the holidays, extreme physical exertion like shoveling show can be bad for our hearts. If a big winter storm moves in, consider asking a neighbor or friend to help shovel your sidewalks and driveway. If you smoke, have a family history of coronary artery disease or have had a previous heart attack, it is best to leave the shoveling up to someone else.
Avoid exposure to cold temperatures – Winter weather can be hard on the body, especially the heart. Cold temperatures cause arteries to tighten, which can restrict blood flow and reduce oxygen to the heart. While the heart is working harder to maintain body temperature, restricted blood flow and reduced oxygen to the heart can trigger a heart attack. Reduce exposure to cold temperatures outside and make sure the heat is on inside to help alleviate stress on your heart.
Get your flu shot – A recent study has found getting a flu shot can help reduce the risk of a heart attack, stroke and cardiac death by 50 percent. For those with heart disease, the flu shot can help reduce the risk of flu-related complications, which is especially important considering more people die from the flu who have heart disease than any other chronic condition.
Keep your distance from the fireplace – Although there’s nothing like cozying up to the fire when it’s cold outside, smoke from the fireplace is a carcinogenic like the smoke of a cigarette. Studies have found the fine particles from the smoke can go deep into the lungs and increase the risk for heart attack and stroke.
Finally, if you know someone who is depressed, alone, or isolated during the holiday season, reach out and cheer them up – it may be the best thing you do for their heart as well as yours.
Make sure the holidays don’t get in the way of taking your medicines and continuing to be attentive to a healthy diet. But even when the holidays are passed, these things continue to be issues all year long because heart disease remains a leading threat to America’s health.
Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.
Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!
The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.
Glenn Ellis is a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics. Listen to Glenn, on radio in Birmingham or V94.9, Sundays at 7:50 p.m., or visit: www.glennellis.com