Holiday Heart Attacks: What You Need to Know

While researchers can’t precisely explain the cause, heart attacks are more common during holidays. Possible reasons could be unhealthy changes in diets, higher alcohol consumption, stress from family interactions, strained finances, travel and entertaining, according to the American Heart Association.

Moreover, more people may ignore the signs and symptoms of a heart attack during the holidays, dismissing them as just stress from running so many errands. Studies have confirmed the higher-than-normal rates of cardiac events during the holidays.

The number of heart-related deaths in the U.S. increases by 5 percent during the December and New Year holidays, according to a study from University of California, San Diego and Tufts University researchers. Daily visits to hospitals for heart failure can increase by 33 percent during the four days after Christmas, according to a separate study.

In a Swedish study released last year, researchers studied 283,014 heart attacks that occurred in Sweden between 1998 and 2013. They found that in comparison to the two weeks before and after Christmas, heart-attack risks were 37 percent higher on Christmas Eve, 20 percent higher on New Year’s Day, and 15 percent higher on Christmas Day.  The study was observational, meaning the authors drew no firm cause-and-effect conclusions.

“The peak of heart attacks usually falls around Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, resulting in a spike of patients in the ER on those days and the mornings after,” said Otto Vega, M.D., medical director of emergency services at Homestead Hospital. “During the holidays people are eating more, drinking more and often packing into the shortened days of winter a lot of activities that aren’t part of their normal routine. All of these things add up to place the body under stress, which can tax the heart and make it work harder.”

Contributing Factors

There are many other factors associated with heart attacks this time of year, which are backed by the American Heart Association (AHA) and American College of Cardiology (ACC), Dr. Vega says. These include:

  • Stress – Activities such as traveling and entertaining guests can lead to emotional and physical stress. Shopping for gifts can generate financial pressure. These strains can spike the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in the body. People with high cortisol levels are five times more likely to die of heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular causes, according to research published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.
  • Skipping medications – Busy holiday partakers can often skip their medications, forget them when away from home or are unable to get refills in a timely manner.
  • Holiday weight gain – The few extra pounds so many people gain year after year can have lasting effects. “Obesity is the leading cause of preventable morbidity,” said Dr. Vega. “More comorbidities means a higher heart attack risk.”
  • No exercise or too much exercise – People say they’re too busy to exercise during the holidays, or try to get in shape too quickly to look better. “When someone starts a new exercise program without a physician, things can go wrong,” Dr. Vega said.
  • Overeating and drinking – Eating a heavy, high-fat and high-sugar meal causes blood pressure and heart rate to increase, taxing the heart and digestive systems. As a result, one may experience heartburn and chest pains that mimic heart attack symptoms. Likewise, too much alcohol also strains the body, making the heart pump harder to get blood to peripheral arteries.
  • Too much salt – High sodium intake can also have an immediate effect, causing fluid retention that makes the heart have to pump harder.
Minimize Risks

Heart attack risk is higher for people who’ve had a previous heart attack and those who have cardiac conditions, such as irregular heart beats and high blood pressure. But many “Christmas Coronary” patients are people who don’t realize they are at risk.

With prevention and moderation, it’s possible to enjoy the holidays and stay heart healthy, according to Dr. Vega.  He offers these risk-reducing tips:

  • Get medication refills in advance so you don’t have to hassle with them during the hectic holiday rush.
  • Keep a regular workout routine; don’t embark on a drastic “pre-holiday” workout.
  • Listen to your body. Several signs of a heart attack can mimic how people can feel after eating a big meal or rushing around, such as shortness of breath or chest pains.  “It’s important to pay attention to any unusual symptoms, especially if you have other medical conditions,” Dr. Vega said.
  • Look out for friends and family members.  In addition to existing cardiac patients, older people and diabetics also are at higher risk of heart attack, according to Dr. Vega. “Diabetics may have nerve damage that prevents them from feeling pain, for example,” he added.
  • Get prompt medical care. “If you’re having a heart attack, studies show that any delay in treatment can decrease survival rate,” said Dr. Vega.

“Moderation is key,” Dr. Vega said. “Don’t make any drastic changes to your habits during the holidays. Only you know best when your body is trying to tell you something is wrong. If you feel things that aren’t normal for you, call your doctor or 911.  It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

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