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Are There More Heart Attacks During the Holidays?

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Know your risk and give yourself the gift of a healthy heart

Posted by Daniel Edmundowicz, MS, MD, FACP, FACC

For many people, the holiday season is one of the happiest times of the year. But with the stress that it’s often accompanied by, it can also be a dangerous time for our hearts.

As a cardiologist, I’ve seen firsthand how heart attack rates often increase between the winter holidays and the new year. In fact, research shows that cardiac death is almost 5% higher during the holidays compared to the rest of the year.

Research shows that cardiac death is almost 5% higher during the holidays compared to the rest of the year.

This phenomenon isn’t a coincidence; the holidays can be a time of “excess.” People tend to eat larger portions of richer, saltier foods and drink more alcohol. They’re busy checking off item after item on their to-do list, which can cause healthy habits and medication regimens to fall by the wayside. And if they do notice concerning heart symptoms, they’re more likely to put off seeing a doctor to avoid disrupting their family’s holiday plans.

These factors can add up to the perfect storm for a heart attack.

One of the most important parts of my job is helping people avoid heart attacks. This holiday season, I encourage everyone to give themselves the gift of a healthy heart by taking some simple, important steps.

Protect your heart during the holidays

We have good evidence to show that high levels of stress — which can be abundant during the holidays — can negatively affect a person’s health and make them more prone to a heart attack. Having chronic health conditions like heart failure or diabetes can cause a person’s risk to be even higher.

This time of year, one of the most heart-friendly things you can do is avoid the trap of “too much.” While it can be challenging to embrace a slower pace, taking it easy can help keep our stress levels from spiraling. And anyway, don’t we all deserve a break during the holidays?

I encourage everyone this holiday season to:

Resist the urge to “do it all”

Packing in every single activity, task, and tradition can feel overwhelming. Instead of trying to maintain all of your holiday traditions, decide on the most important things and downsize or skip the rest. For instance, trim your holiday card list to fewer recipients, or order gifts online instead of going to crowded stores.

Choose gatherings that bring you joy

Spend more time with people you enjoy being with — and less with those you don’t. If there’s a holiday party or gathering you dread going to each year, give yourself permission to skip it.

Make time to rest

Schedule down days where you don’t have anything on your plate. If you’re feeling frazzled, set aside at least a few minutes each day for a dedicated stress-buster like meditation, prayer or journaling.

Be active, but don’t overexert yourself

Make an effort to maintain your regular workouts, even if you have to carve out time in your busy schedule to get this done. Exercise helps manage stress, and it helps keep your heart healthy.

Don’t do activities you aren’t up for

Like shoveling the whole driveway or stringing up a massive light display. Pushing yourself too far can stress your heart.

Indulge in moderation

Enjoy your favorite holiday foods in small portions and balance out feast days with healthy fare. Avoid overdoing it on the alcohol, too — it can worsen an irregular heartbeat.

Keep up with your medications

Even if you’re traveling or otherwise very busy, stay on top of all your prescriptions — including those for your heart. Missing a dose can affect a drug’s effectiveness.

Don’t ignore symptoms that could signal a heart attack

If you or a loved one mentions discomfort that sounds like a possible heart attack symptom, call 911 right away.

Symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain. Heart attack discomfort usually occurs in the center of the chest. Patients often describe it as a feeling of uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, or fullness. The discomfort can come and go or linger for several minutes or more.
  • Upper-body discomfort. It’s common for patients to experience pain in one or both arms, their neck, jaw, back, or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath. It can be accompanied by chest pain, but isn’t always.
  • Other signs. Some patients will start to feel nauseous, light-headed or break out in a cold sweat when they’re having a heart attack.

Sometimes during the holidays, people avoid speaking up about their symptoms or put off seeking medical attention because they don’t want to disrupt the celebration. But remember, making that call could allow you or a loved one to celebrate another holiday next year. So, don’t delay getting medical help under any circumstances.

More joy, less stress

I hope these suggestions help you and your loved ones have a safe and healthy holiday season with all of the joy and less of the stress.

Looking to reduce your risk of heart disease? Schedule an appointment with our Preventive Cardiology & Integrative Heart Health Program.

If you are in pain and believe you may be having a heart attack, call 911 immediately.

Helpful Resources

Looking for more information?

Daniel Edmundowicz, MS, MD, FACP, FACC

Dr. Edmundowicz is the Medical Director of the Temple Heart and Vascular Institute and has a special interest in cardiovascular disease prevention. He is national authority on the applications of atherosclerosis imaging to cardiovascular disease prevention and risk factor modification. He has lectured widely and published more than 80 peer-reviewed articles. He leads public health and epidemiologic studies and participates in multi-center clinical trials. Dr. Edmundowicz is a Fellow of the American College of Cardiology and past president of the ACC’s Pennsylvania Chapter. He is also a member of the American Heart Association and National Lipid Association.

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