Let’s take a little one-question, multiple-choice quiz…
During the holidays you are more likely to ___________?
Unfortunately, the answer is E. All of the above. Whether you know it or not your risk for having a heart attack increases during the late December holidays.
In fact, according to a 2004 study published in the American Heart Association’s journal, Circulation, researchers at the University of California, San Diego and Tufts University School of Medicine examined 53 million U.S. death certificates between 1973 and 2001. They found that there was an increase of as much as 5% in the number of heart-related deaths during the holidays, around Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The reason for a winter holiday spike in the incidence of heart attacks is still a bit of a mystery, but there are a number of factors that definitely contribute to the perfect storm that seems to surround the holidays.
Dr. Richard Guynes, Cardiologist at Jackson Heart Clinic spoke with Well-Being about some of the reasons for the jump in the number of holiday heart attacks. “It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what elevates the risk of heart attacks during this particular time of year,” says Dr. Guynes. “But there are several activities that contribute to the stress factor – family gatherings, travel, increases in consumption of rich foods, (high in calories, salt and fat) and alcohol, less regular exercise, less sleep, and the pressure to get everything done and meet the expectations of family and work. I counsel my patients about managing their stress, especially during this busy season.”
Another suspected heart attack trigger is cold weather. When it is cold outside blood vessels constrict, raising blood pressure. Blood also clots more easily in cold temperatures. We know that coronary artery disease stems from atherosclerosis, a condition in which a buildup of plaque narrows the arteries to the heart. When a piece of plaque breaks away, it can form a blood clot that leads to a heart attack. While cold weather seems to be one logical culprit of holiday heart attacks, studies show similar increases in the number of heart attacks in places with temperate climates, confounding the discussion further.
“In Mississippi, we hear about people having heart attacks while in the woods deer hunting or in a duck blind,” notes Dr. Guynes. “Being out in the elements when you are unaccustomed to the cold temperatures can be a stressor that brings on an attack.”
“There is also something known as broken heart syndrome or takotsubo cardiomyopathy syndrome, a cardiac event that is solely related to stress with no apparent connection to atherosclerosis or blockage. It occurs in highly charged circumstances such as the sudden death of a spouse, a serious car accident or a tornado. These types of heart attacks may also spike during the emotionally charged holiday season.” adds Guynes.
Of all the potential reasons for the increase in heart attacks during the holidays, one of the most preventable is the tendency to delay getting emergency care when symptoms of a heart attack occur. Often people will put off calling 911 because it is inconvenient or they don’t want to disrupt a family get-together or miss a special event.
“Nothing is more important than your life,” continues Guynes. “If you are experiencing heart attack symptoms, play it safe and call 911 immediately (don’t try to drive yourself). This is not something you want to put off until tomorrow, when it’s more convenient. Your life depends on it. Don’t become another holiday heart attack statistic.”
Richard D. Guynes, M.D., Cardiologist, earned his Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine. He also completed his residency in internal medicine and fellowship in cardiology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. He is board certified in internal medicine, cardiovascular diseases and interventional cardiology. Dr. Guynes practices medicine at Jackson Heart Clinic in Jackson.