For most of us, things get really busy as the holidays roll around. You might be balancing a heavier-than-usual workload, raising kids and trying to make an appearance at one holiday get-together after another. And you’re probably a little less diligent in watching what you eat and drink during the holiday season. Add it all up, and this whirlwind time of year comes with an increase in heart attacks and other heart-related health problems.
A holiday heart attack is a real phenomenon, and as more people experience — and die from — one between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, we’re taking a look at what causes a holiday heart attack and how to prevent one this season.
What Leads to a Holiday Heart Attack?
The American Heart Association has found that more heart-related deaths occur during the holidays and says there are likely many reasons why. Some common factors they’ve noted are:
- Overindulging in food and drink
- Delaying treatment when a heart-related incident occurs
- Stress from travel and being with family
- Cold weather
“We see an increase in hospital admissions over the holidays for heart attack, heart failure and arrhythmias,” said Michael Levy, MD, a cardiologist at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington. “It comes from a combination of things. For heart failure patients, the increase in food and drink can land them in the emergency room.”
The cold weather causes heart problems for some people, too. Dr. Levy encourages his patients with heart problems not to shovel snow.
“People spend most of the year being relatively inactive, and then one day overexert themselves outside shoveling snow,” he said. “Shoveling snow is a difficult workout that can provoke a heart attack. Plus, the cold weather causes vasoconstriction, leading to heart problems because of blockages.”
He also said your body doesn’t always give ample warning that it’s being pushed too far, and a heart attack can happen suddenly while shoveling snow, leaving you no time to react.
One of the other major factors in heart-related deaths during the holidays is that people simply ignore their symptoms. They don’t want to leave a party, or they think they can’t pause their busy schedule to address that nagging fatigue or mild chest pain they’re feeling.
“We joke that no one has a heart attack during the Super Bowl, but afterward, people come in with chest pain,” said Dr. Levy. And by then, he adds, it’s sometimes too late to help.
How to Prevent a Holiday Heart Attack
People with heart problems often receive regular medical care and counseling about what to eat and what not to eat during the holidays. It’s important to follow your doctor’s advice all year long.
Here are a few basic guidelines for keeping your heart healthy — and avoiding a holiday heart attack — this year:
- Drink in moderation. If you drink, limit yourself to one drink if you’re a woman, or two if you’re a man.
- Limit your intake of salty, high-fat or sugary foods. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
- Keep moving. Take a brisk walk after a large meal to keep your body in motion.
- Manage your stress levels by setting limits on the number of family gatherings you attend or activities you partake in. Know what you can handle.
Dr. Levy says that the heart attacks, arrhythmias and heart failure events that happen this time of year most often occur in people who didn’t know they had a problem to begin with.
“Tracking your heart health is simple, but time and again, I see it ignored, and that can lead to big problems,” he said.
You may feel as though you’re too busy to see a doctor this time of year, but it helps to know your vital numbers — such as your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. Not smoking, eating healthy and exercising regularly are also key in keeping your heart healthy throughout the year. Dr. Levy notes that elevated blood pressure or cholesterol don’t necessarily come with any symptoms. But, he adds, when these factors aren’t controlled they can land you in the hospital.
It’s important to keep an eye on your numbers and to seek care immediately if you notice any symptoms or changes — even if it’s at an inconvenient time. Fatigue, chest pain or pressure, severe chest pain that radiates to your jaw or left arm, sudden shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, loss of consciousness or lightheadedness are all signs that you should seek care quickly.
A heart attack doesn’t have to come in the way of your holiday fun this year — or any year. Make choices with heart health in mind, don’t stretch yourself too far, and remember: when in doubt, get checked out.