When viewed in retrospect, the potent combination of high fat meals loaded with sodium, a few alcoholic drinks, stress and an occasional sprinkling of snow shoveling are considered a “perfect storm” to trigger heart attacks, especially the last week in December and New Year’s.
Some doctors of internal medicine refer to it as the “Happy New Year Heart Attack” or the “Christmas Coronary.”
Physicians have long recognized a “holiday bump” in the number of heart attacks at this time of year.
“It’s small, but it’s something that we notice,” said Renato Santos, M.D., an interventional cardiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
Santos said the exact reasons behind the increased number of heart attacks during the holiday season aren’t clear, but most experts agree that the most likely trigger is stress. We’re tying up loose ends at work while trying to find the best gift for everyone. We’re cooking meals for our families and making plans for holiday parties. Bottom line, we’re overloaded.
“The first thing to recognize is that holidays are always stressful,” Santos said. “You need to be able to manage that and try not to get all caught up in making everything perfect. Don’t let all the holiday activities get to you, and like anything else, pace yourself.”
Santos offered these tips as people enter the holiday season:
● Hang out at the veggie tray at parties. “I’m not telling people not to eat desserts and treats, but moderation is key,” Santos said.
● Start your New Year’s resolution to exercise ahead of time; try to get in some physical activity three to five days a week. Consult with your physician on what activity may be best for you.
● If you’re thinking about quitting smoking, try to do it before the holidays hit.
“If you feel any of the classic heart attack symptoms, chest pain or discomfort, shortness of breath, dizziness or fainting spells, indigestion that intensifies over five to 15 minutes, get help immediately by calling 911,” Santos said.
“The holidays are meant for enjoyable times with family and friends,” Santos said. “Focusing on time together and these tips can be some of the best medicine for your heart.”
It’s not just a Western phenomenon either. Recent research in China cited by the Associated Press found the same thing. The increase includes fatal and nonfatal heart attacks and a less serious condition dubbed “holiday heart syndrome,” an irregular heartbeat caused by too much booze.
American Heart Association spokesman Dr. Richard Stein, a cardiologist at New York University’s medical center, said most studies investigating holiday heart trends have found a statistical increase in heart attacks and other problems, admittedly not a giant surge, but worth noting.
Stein said it happens in cold climates, sometimes when sedentary people or those with heart disease take on too much snow shoveling, or spend too much time outdoors. Cold weather can constrict arteries, increasing demand on the heart, Stein said, But it also happens in warm places. Flu season coincides with winter holidays and Stein said that might be a factor since the virus can cause inflammation which can stress the heart.
Stein recommends the usual preventive advice, including flu shots, avoiding excessive eating and drinking, and getting enough exercise throughout the season.
In an editorial written by Robert A. Kloner, MD, PhD, Heart Institute, Good Samaritan Hospital for the the American Heart Association, Kloner supports the theory emotional stress is another factor which may be important.
He writes during the holiday season, patients may feel stress from having to interact with relatives whom they may or may not want to encounter; having to absorb financial pressures such as purchasing gifts, traveling expenses, entertaining, and decorating; and having to travel, especially in the post Sept. 11 era.
Respiratory issues may also be important. Burning wood in fireplaces, which tends to be a popular activity during the winter holidays, releases toxic particulate material into the air. Particulate airborne pollutants have been associated with an increase in cardiac events and an increase in blood pressure.
Another aspect of the phenomena researchers suggest is people might delay getting treatment because they don’t want to disrupt Christmas and New Year’s festivities, to their own harm.
Kloner also stresses people should be warned to avoid the known triggers including excess physical exertion (especially shoveling show), overeating, lack of sleep, emotional stress, illegal drugs, and anger. Avoid excess salt and alcohol intake. Alcohol can also precipitate arrhythmia such as atrial fibrillation and can depress the cardiac muscle’s ability to contract.
Reach David Broyles at firstname.lastname@example.org or 336-719-1952.