More than twice as many heart attacks occur in January as in July.
According to a report in the Dec. 13, 2004, issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, the rate of heart disease-related deaths (as well as deaths from other causes) rises sharply between Dec. 25 and Jan. 7. In fact, the death rate peaks on Christmas Day and New Year's Day.
"Winter heart attacks are more damaging to cardiac muscle than those that occur during the summer months," explained Cardiologist Keith Kuppler, M.D. "This is partly due to the effects of the cold air itself.
"Cold air stresses the heart because it has to work harder. The body protects itself in low temperatures by constricting or narrowing the blood vessels to conserve warmth around the major organs. Cold temperatures cause arteries to tighten, restricting blood flow and reducing the oxygen supply to the heart, all of which can set the stage for a heart attack."
Shovel with Caution
One of the greatest risks to your heart in winter is sudden cardiac death while shoveling snow. "Snow-shoveling deaths are usually not the classic heart attacks brought on by a blocked blood vessel," Dr. Kuppler continued. "They usually are the result of a disruption of the heart's normal rhythm. This may be triggered by a combination of the cold air and the results of increased activity on a heart already made vulnerable by a multitude of factors including diabetes, smoking or inactivity.
"Before you go out and do vigorous exercise in the snow, you need to know your cardiovascular well-being. Touch base with your physician before you power up the snow blower or decide to shovel the sidewalk. If you already are a cardiac patient, discuss these activities with your cardiologist to see if they're safe for you.
"If you are at risk for heart disease, start performing strenuous activities slowly. The cardiovascular system can adapt to slow and progressive changes, but it has a much more difficult time adapting to sudden changes.
"For example, when you go out to shovel snow, do it for just 15 minutes at a clip and then let the body recuperate. Don't overdo it, especially if you are not used to exercising. However, don't go inside and have a cup of coffee or smoke a cigarette when you warm up because caffeine and nicotine just put that much more burden on the heart. Also, if you assume a vigorous or ambitious workload during the cold weather, it should not be after a heavy meal and should not be mixed with alcohol."
Don't Over Exert
It's not just shovelers who run the risk of taxing their heart in the winter. Every Jan. 1st, millions of people join gyms as part of their New Year's resolution to get in shape - and many may overexert themselves too quickly.
"There is no question that exercise is beneficial, but exercise that the body is not prepared to handle is not good," Dr. Kuppler cautioned. "Start an exercise regimen under the supervision of your doctor if you have heart disease risk factors, and even if you don't, start slowly."
A classic heart attack is marked by pain in the chest that may radiate down the left arm, but sometimes it may feel more like a muscle pull. The pain usually lasts more than a few minutes and can wax and wane in intensity.
"The heart is a muscle, and the pain could be from a clogged artery in the heart," he said, "but the pain can radiate, making it appear to be a pulled muscle in the back or neck. When in doubt, go to the nearest emergency room or call for emergency medical assistance."
Indulge in Moderation
Winter's other big danger to the heart involves eating fat and calorie-laden holiday foods. "The price of a healthy heart is using good decision making in food choices, especially during the holidays," said Dr. Kuppler. "We need to avoid foods that are high in salt, saturated fat and refined sugar. If you're a heart patient, eat smaller meals and don't overload on carbohydrates."
However, some traditional holiday treats are actually good for us in moderation, such as almonds, walnuts and salmon, with its omega-3 fatty acids. Holiday fruits such as pears, apples and figs are also good choices.
"People have a tendency to eat more, drink more, smoke more, and gain more weight during the holiday season," Dr. Kuppler concluded.
"In addition, the holiday period is very stressful in terms of family and financial issues. Anxiety and depression tend to peak for some people around the holiday season and are also linked to heart attack and stroke.
"Don't take a holiday from protecting your heart. However, if you've yet to adopt a healthy lifestyle, remember that winter is the season when many people make this resolution. There's no wrong season to begin exercising safely and eating wisely, which may lead to enjoying many more holiday seasons with family and friends as a result."
Keith Kuppler, M.D., is a board certified cardiologist affiliated with Salem Community Hospital's medical staff and The Heart Center of Northeastern Ohio. Appointments with Dr. Kuppler can be scheduled by calling his office at 330-758-7703.