January 16, 2019 by Laura Pincus and Patty Shillington
Keeping Your Heart Healthy During the Holidays
Pressure to buy gifts, opportunities to overeat and drink too much and expectations to socialize with family and friends are common stressors during the holidays. But do you know that declining heart health and even heart attacks are also commonplace around Christmas and the New Year?
“Being aware of heart health is very important during this time of year,” said Tarark Rambhatla, M.D., a cardiologist with Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute. “It’s true there are a lot of heart attacks during the holidays, as well as arrhythmias, AFib and worsening of heart failure.”
In fact, more people die from heart attacks during the holidays than other times of the year. The number of heart-related deaths in the U.S. increases by 5 percent during the December and New Year holidays, researchers have found. And daily visits to hospitals for heart failure can increase by 33 percent during the four days after Christmas, according to one study.
“Just because it’s the holidays is not a reason to overindulge in eating and drinking to the point your heart is affected,” Dr. Rambhatla said. “Especially people with underlying cardiac conditions have to be more aware and extra cautious of activities that can be detrimental to their heart.”
For patients with existing cardiovascular disease, he emphasizes the importance of always taking their medication as directed, especially when doses are prescribed more than once a day. He advises heart failure patients to drink less fluid during the day if they plan on having a large holiday dinner with extra drinks at night.
“In heart failure patients, too much liquid intake puts pressure on the heart that can trigger a disturbance in the way the heart beats, causing arrhythmias and sometimes a heart attack,” Dr. Rambhatla said. “This is risky for a certain population of patients who may already have blockages and heart failure. It can put their heart over the edge.”
Holiday Heart Syndrome
“Holiday Heart Syndrome” is used to describe a significantly abnormal heart rhythm that happens after heavy alcohol consumption in people without heart disease. Dr. Rambhatla cautions even healthy patients without underlying heart conditions are still at risk for holiday heart syndrome or heart attacks.
“Alcohol destabilizes the membranes in the heart and increases a person’s susceptibility to the type of arrhythmias that cause short-term atrial fibrillation (AFib),” he adds.
To keep the heart beating at a steady, healthy pace, alcohol should be consumed in moderation, he says. More than two or three drinks in one evening is considered heavy alcohol use.
“A lot of alcohol intake, high stress and anxiety and eating a lot of high-fat food revs up the adrenaline system, increasing the fight or flight response and wreaking havoc on the cardiovascular system,” Dr. Rambhatla said. “Because of these dynamics, many people experience their first episode of AFib during the holiday season. Likewise, there are more hospitalizations for AFib and heart failure this time of year.”
Seek Medical Care
While spending time with family during the holidays is comforting, it’s also one of the reasons there are more heart attacks this time of year, Dr. Rambhatla says. Even though someone may be feeling signs of a heart attack, they are less likely to seek care because they don’t want to leave a family gathering and miss out on enjoying holiday festivities, he explains.
Anyone experiencing chest pain, dizziness, shortness of breath should seek medical attention without delay.
“If you’re unwell and avoid seeking medical care, it can become a more serious, potentially deadly situation,” Dr. Rambhatla said. “Pay attention to symptoms and seek medical care if necessary so you can be here to enjoy future holidays with family and friends.”