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The Cardiologist's Wife - Avoiding the Holiday Heart Attack
Dec 20, 2018

With Christmas just days away, it was disturbing to hear on the news that Christmas Eve is the worst day of the year for heart attacks. We are supposed to be jolly and festive, not waiting for disaster to strike but several studies have shown an increase in the number of cardiac deaths from Hanukah to New Year’s. Apparently, the colder weather and various factors unique to the holidays can play a role in addition to other known risk factors for heart attacks like smoking, high blood pressure and diabetes.

When the weather is cold, our blood vessels constrict to maintain body heat but this also raises blood pressure. If you already have high blood pressure, this compounds the problem. Our blood also clots more easily in the cold, further increasing our risk. If we exert ourselves more than we are used to in the cold, this increases strain on the heart, perhaps triggering a heart attack. But not every part of the world has cold weather at Christmas so there are other factors at play in December.

Researchers think part of the problem is that people might delay getting medical treatment because they don’t want to miss out on holiday celebrations or be a burden to anyone. They want to wait until afterwards but that could be a costly mistake. Then too, those traveling might want to wait until they are home to see their own doctor rather than someone unfamiliar.

Emotional stress plays a part as does overindulging. Family gatherings can be filled with anxiety, angry confrontations or depression. Stressful situations can raise levels of cortisol, the hormone which enables our body to respond quickly to fight or flight situations but which also causes damage to our blood vessels when our levels are continually high. People tend to drink more and eat too much of the wrong foods during the holidays leading to weight gain. Excess salt can raise blood pressure even more and stress the heart. During this busy time, people skip exercising, setting the stage for a heart attack event.

Recognizing these factors is the first step in avoiding a potentially disastrous holiday heart problem.Keep up your normal exercise routine if you have one but take care to dress warmly when outdoors or avoid going out during periods of extreme cold. Make good choices at parties and avoid drinking to excess or over eating, especially salty foods.

Avoiding family stress is much more tricky but find ways to relax. Meditate, read a book, talk to a friend or get a massage. If your family situation is extremely toxic, limit your time with them or skip the get together and go somewhere you feel more at home. Whatever you do, don’t delay getting medical help if you experience any symptoms of a heart attack or feel somehow “off”. Heart attack symptoms vary from person to person and differ between men and women but here is a list of potential warning signs: chest pain or discomfort, pain between the shoulder blades, pain that radiates to the jaw or down either arm, nausea, vomiting or indigestion, heartburn, dizziness, sweating, extreme exhaustion, a feeling of doom or uneasiness, a feeling your heartbeat isn’t normal.

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