It might be the most wonderful time of the year, but the holiday season is also the most fatal when it comes to cardiac events. Studies reveal a sharp increase in coronary deaths during the holidays, with one study reporting a 33% increase during December and January.
What causes that uptick during this time of year? Although cold weather can increase the risk of cardiac events like heart attacks, it is unlikely to be the main cause. The spike in cardiac fatalities starts around Thanksgiving. It begins to drop a week into the new year when cold temperatures remain at their peak. Additionally, the trend is seen in mild climates, which indicates that winter is not to blame.
The more likely culprits for the surge in cardiac deaths involve our holiday lifestyles. The most obvious factors are overindulging in foods and drinks while exercising less. There is also the increased stress that the holidays bring for many people, as well as the tendency to delay seeking medical care during this busy period.
For people who are already at risk for a heart attack or other cardiac events due to conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, unhealthy holiday habits can tip their hearts into dangerous territory. This can especially be the case for people who are unaware that they have underlying risk factors.
Let’s take the example of someone with undiagnosed high blood pressure. Combine that with a busier schedule; increased stress; less sleep; more high-fat, high-salt and high-sugar foods; increased alcohol consumption; and little to no exercise (all at once). It now becomes easier to see why more deadly cardiac events can occur during the festive season.
The good news is that reducing your risk of heart problems during the holidays is actually pretty simple.
- Watch what you eat.
While it’s generally fine to enjoy the occasional treat or overindulge for one meal, the problem sets in when it becomes a regular occurrence. Stick to your healthy eating habits for the majority of the holidays, and save the unhealthy treats for special occasions only. Be particularly mindful of high-sodium and high-fat foods, and make an effort to build a balanced plate. If you overindulge, get right back on track with your next meal.
- Drink in moderation.
It can be easy to overdo it during the holidays, especially at social events. A few ways to keep your drinking in check include paying attention to how many drinks you are consuming, alternating alcoholic drinks with water, and choosing lower-alcohol beverages like light beer or wine spritzers. You can also skip the booze altogether by nominating yourself as a designated driver or by simply opting for nonalcoholic options.
- Make time to exercise.
Don’t let a busy schedule get in the way of staying active. Whether you plan ahead and block out dedicated time for exercise or if you fit activity in where you can, keeping yourself moving is one of the best things that you can do for your heart. In addition to your regular exercise routine, consider taking the stairs, parking at the far end of the parking lot, choosing fun activities or walks for spending time with loved ones, and making sure to get up and move regularly if you have a desk job. Small changes can have a big impact.
- Get enough R&R time.
Make sure you get plenty of rest and relaxation. It’s not only important for your mental health but also for your heart health. People who do not get enough sleep have a higher risk for heart disease, obesity and other chronic conditions. Stress, especially chronic stress, can also take a toll on your heart. This can increase blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Aim for at least seven hours of good-quality sleep each night, and find healthy ways to manage your stress.
- Know the symptoms of a heart attack.
The quicker you or a loved one receives medical treatment in the case of a heart attack, the less chance there is of heart damage and death. It’s important to know how to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack and to call 9-1-1 immediately. Although symptoms can vary (particularly between men and women), the main symptoms of a heart attack include:
- Chest pain or discomfort that usually occurs in the center of the chest and lasts for more than a few minutes. There is not one specific sensation, but patients report feeling squeezing, pressure, tightness or pain.
- Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, back, stomach, and one or both arms.
- Shortness of breath.
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy.
With the right approach to the holidays, there’s no reason that you and your loved ones should be at additional risk for heart problems. Celebrate in moderation, and keep your healthy routines going throughout the festive season. If you do those things, you’ll be well-placed for a healthy 2023.
The team at Advanced Cardiovascular Specialists consists of North Louisiana’s leading experts in cardiovascular care. For more information or to schedule an appointment, please call our office at (318) 798-9400.