Keep the Beat: Heart Health During the Holidays

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December 17, 2014

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First of a two-part series


Holiday shoppers pack stores during the year-end rush. Another place that experiences more visitors than normal is the emergency room (ER). Why?

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 2008 study.

“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, where many of the 90,000-plus ER visits each year are for cardiac-related problems. “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, in turn, 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), according to Dr. Vega. 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 have been found to be five times more likely to die of heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular causes, according to research published last year in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, the world’s oldest, largest and most active organization devoted to research on hormones and the clinical practice of endocrinology.

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 in the fall and winter 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 – Immediately after eating a heavy meal, especially high-fat and high-sugar foods, blood pressure and heart rate increase, taxing the heart and digestive systems. As a result, one may experience heartburn and chest pains that mimic heart attack symptoms. There’s even some evidence that the lining of arteries becomes temporarily more clot-prone Likewise, too much alcohol also strains the body, making the heart pump harder to get blood to peripheral arteries. Alcohol can also irritate the heart muscle and trigger an irregular heartbeat called paroxysmal atrial fibrillation (a-fib). If a-fib goes unchecked for too long, it can cause a stroke.

Too much salt – High sodium intake can also have an immediate effect, causing fluid retention that in turn makes the heart have to pump harder.

Dr. Vega says with prevention and moderation, it’s possible to enjoy the holidays and stay heart healthy.

See tomorrow’s Part Two of Keep the Beat: Heart Health During the Holidays for information on how to minimize heart attack risks at this time of year.

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