For people with heart disease or at high risk of heart disease, heart attacks are more prevalent during the holiday season, specifically, between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, than any other time of the year. What’s behind this increase are six key stressors that put us at greater risk for stroke or a heart attack. Learn what those stressors are and what you can do to steer clear of ticker trouble.
Know your limits
Cherished holiday traditions and time with family can also mean stress and anxiety. That feeling of I can’t get it all done! can really take a toll. Stress causes our heart rate to spike and our heart muscles to contract — raising blood pressure, prompting the production of heart-damaging stress hormones and inflammatory proteins, increasing the risk of heart disease.
• Avoid over-committing. You just can’t be everywhere. It’s okay to say, “No.”
• If you need help, ask for it.
• Take some downtime from the to-do’s. Go for a brisk walk. Research suggests that a 10-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout in relieving anxiety symptoms. Practice deep breathing; give yoga or meditation a try.
Downsize your plate
When you overindulge, it can overstimulate your central nervous system and promote rapid, irregular heart rhythms. Also, too much salt can lead to high blood pressure and fluid retention — additional risk factors for heart problems.
• Avoid going to a party on an empty stomach. To fill up a bit, eat a healthy high-protein snack, such as nonfat yogurt.
• Rein in portions, take smaller bites and chew slowly.
• Choose a smaller plate so it appears full, and you don’t feel deprived.
• Get a jump-start on your New Year’s resolution to shed 10 pounds.
• Take only two pieces of mom’s amazing peppermint swirl fudge, not all of it.
Alcohol can affect your heart health. Drinking too much, too quickly, can result in an irregular heartbeat. This can lead to chest pain, weakness, lightheadedness and difficulty breathing — a condition known as “holiday heart.” Moderation is key. Anyone can be at risk for holiday heart.
Low outdoor temperatures can cause blood vessels to constrict. This reduces blood flow and raises your blood pressure, making your heart work harder, and setting the stage for chest pain (angina) or a heart attack. This may be especially risky if you’ve already had a heart attack, have heart disease or are older than 65.
• A few thin layers will keep you warmer than one thick layer.
• Keep your head and mouth covered with a scarf/muffler so that warm air hits your lungs first when you breathe in.
• Go inside frequently to warm up.
Influenza causes inflammation, which can contribute to a heart attack. Wash hands frequently. People at high risk, including those older than 65, and those with heart disease risk factors, should consider getting a flu shot.
Sudden extreme winter activity — such as sledding, shoveling snow or even pushing a heavy snow blower — can cause an uptick in blood pressure and heart rate, causing stress on your heart and placing you at risk for a heart attack.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found heart-related deaths spiked by 22 percent after a big blizzard. Healthy, active people should have no problem shoveling snow. But many don’t know they have health risks such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, so everyone should be careful.
• When shoveling snow, use a small shovel, aim for light loads, drink plenty of water and take breaks often. Better yet, get your 14-year-old to help. They could use the fresh air and exercise.
• Listen to your body. If you’re planning on snowboarding or hiking through wet, heavy snowdrifts, layer up and stay warm and don’t try anything too crazy.
• If you aren’t used to regular exercise, are over 60, or have questions about your heart health, see your doctor before participating in any strenuous winter activities.
With a little extra caution, you can enjoy the holidays while staying your heart healthiest!
Watch for Warning Signs
• Visit or call your doctor right away for any unusual signs and symptoms that may suggest a heart condition. When in doubt, go to the emergency room or call 911 and get it checked out.
• Symptoms can vary but often include chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea and pain or discomfort in one or both arms.
• Women, people with diabetes and the elderly may have atypical symptoms that include vomiting or just feeling exceptionally fatigued.
• Don’t delay getting help, even if it’s a holiday.
What’s Your Heart Age?
Take the Stony Brook Heart Institute Heart Health Assessment test.
The first 100 people to complete the test will receive a Heart Healthy cookbook.
Stony Brook Heart Institute, (631) 44-HEART (444-3278), heart.stonybrookmedicine.edu