How the Winter Holidays Can Impact Heart Health

by Allen J. Taylor, MD, Chairman of Cardiology, MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute
December 24, 2018

The holidays offer us time with friends and family, and sometimes even vacations from work. But one thing we have noticed over the years is that the holidays and winter months also correspond with increased risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S., according to a 2017 study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Cold weather can cause your blood vessels and arteries to shrink, restricting blood flow and reducing oxygen to the heart. As a result, your heart has to pump harder—which can cause your blood pressure and heart rate to increase. These factors can make individuals more vulnerable to heart disease and other heart conditions.

We see this firsthand at MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute, as we are much busier around the holidays. In fact, we see about 50 percent more heart attacks in the winter. And, alarmingly, more people die of heart related causes on Christmas and New Year’s Day, than any day during the year. While these numbers aren’t meant to scare anyone, they serve as a good reminder for us to take time this winter to stay on top of our heart health.

The #holidays are a time to enjoy time with friends and family. However, it’s also a time to give your #hearthealth special attention, as it can be more prone to increased risk of #heartdisease. https://bit.ly/2BCxQ7d via @MedStarWHC @TaylorMHVIcard

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Heart Conditions Associated with Winter Holidays

Holiday Heart Syndrome

Binge drinking during the holiday season creates increased heart risk known as holiday heart syndrome, in which patients develop atrial fibrillation (A-fib), an irregular rapid heart rate that has symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, and lightheadedness. Alcohol causes A-fib, through triggers such as:

When uncontrolled, A-fib can cause heart failure as the irregular fast heart rhythm can make it more difficult for the heart to pump blood throughout the body.

Studies show that moderate to high alcohol intake causes A-fib in people over 65 with existing cardiovascular disease or diabetes. And binge drinking increases the risk of A-fib  similar to habitual heavy drinking for those who consider themselves moderate drinkers.

Heart Failure

We also see more heart failure at MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute during the winter months. This matches the experience in other areas of the country. A study 20 years ago examined the number of visits for heart failure to 18 different emergency departments in New Jersey and New York from Dec. 1 to Jan. 31 each year.

Comparing the average daily visits during a two-week window between Christmas and New Year’s Day, there was about a 23 percent increase in daily visits from Dec. 25 to Jan. 7, about a 33 percent increase from Dec. 26 to Dec. 29, and a 30 percent increase from Jan. 2 to Jan. 5.

Tips for Good Heart Health This Winter

Some common tips we provide patients—especially around the winter holidays—to maintain a healthy heart include:

  • Avoid binge drinking: Men should try drinking no more than two drinks a day, while women should drink no more than one to avoid any health implications.
  • Avoid stress, if possible: Low stress levels promote good heart health. The holidays can overwhelm us with to-do lists: holiday parties, gift-giving, or making travel plans. Making plans in advance and getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night help control your stress levels. Make sure you seek medical attention if these simple tips aren’t helping.
  • Don’t avoid care: People tend to be busier during the holidays. And from my experience, this can delay them from seeking medical attention. Although some clinics have limited hours during the holidays, your local emergency room, or prompt care, can help. MedStar Health has a large network of prompt care sites in Maryland and the District of Columbia.
  • Follow a Mediterranean diet: This diet encourages healthy food choices including fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, grains, poultry, and eggs. The Mediterranean diet provides the best-studied and most evidence-based diet to prevent heart disease.

Staying top of your heart health all year long included increased heart awareness during the winter months and around the holidays. I hope that these tips bring you heart health this holiday season and all year long!

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Category: Healthy Living     Tags: afibheart diseaseheart-healthholidayswinter