Many people’s hearts flutter around the holidays because there’s so much excitement in the air with festive gatherings, family travel and anticipated gift-giving. Unfortunately, the holidays can also notoriously take a toll on the ol’ ticker—adding up to a more deadly season than at any other time of the year.
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego and Tufts University School of Medicine published a 2004 study in Circulation which examined 53 million U.S. death certificates from 1973 to 2001. According to the Circulation study, “The number of cardiac deaths is higher on December 25 than on any other day of the year, second highest on December 26, and third highest on January 1.” The researchers noted a 5% increase (overall) of heart-related deaths during the holidays—a trend that increased each year, with the exception of two.
Cold weather may be a factor in this trend, since frigid temps can cause blood to clot more readily and cause blood vessels to constrict, raising blood pressure. The cold can also increase heart strain, while too much physical exertion can exacerbate any heart issues. Many of us may have heard of heart attacks happening just after a robust round of snow shoveling out in the cold.
Cold weather alone doesn’t explain why fatal heart attacks spike at Christmas and New Year’s, though, since there are plenty of other cold days during the winter. In fact, weather may not play a significant role in this holiday upswing in heart incidents.Heart attacks also increase during the holidays in warm climates such as Los Angeles. One of the researchers noted one-third more cardiovascular-related deaths in December and January than in June through September during a 12-year period in Los Angeles County.
So what’s behind this uninvited holiday visitor that can wreak havoc on the heart?
In the Circulation study, the researchers suggested that people often delay getting help over the holidays, which may add to the increase of adverse heart incidents. Additionally, emotional stress, overindulgence and lack of exercise associated with the holiday season can put significant pressure on the heart.
One of the study’s researchers, Robert A. Kloner, M.D., Ph.D., a researcher at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles and a professor at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, says, “People tend to gain weight during the holiday season and take in more salt, which can put additional stress on a weakened heart.”
Kloner adds some common sense recommendations during the holidays, including:
- Layer clothing and avoid exposure to very cold temps.
- Avoid heart stressors such as too much physical exertion, anger and emotional stress.
- Stay away from too much salt and alcohol. Binge drinking, for instance, can cause atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm which causes the heart’s two upper chambers to contract irregularly. This can increase a person’s risk of stroke, heart attack and heart failure.
- Beware of the effects of viruses; infection and fever put extra stress on the heart.
- Breathe clean air; ultra-fine air particles are bad for the heart.
- Don’t hesitate to get help if you need it—even if it is a holiday.
Be sure to take extra care this season. The holidays are meant to be heart warming, not heart threatening.