In the United States, more than 700,000 people have a heart attack and almost 800,000 suffer a stroke each year. And these staggering numbers are met with the realization that about one-sixth of these cases prove fatal.
While a heart attack or stroke can happen at any time of year, there appears to be a spike in the winter. Why? “There are a lot of different theories,” says Benjamin Yang, MD, a cardiologist at Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree, CO. “Possibly due to the cold temperatures. No one is absolutely sure as to why it happens.”
Recognize Weather’s Role
Frigid temperatures cause blood vessels to narrow, which makes our bodies work harder to pump blood to the heart and increases blood pressure. This increases a person’s risk of heart attack or stroke, especially if other risk factors — such as obesity, high cholesterol, or diabetes — are at play. A combination of low temperatures and overexertion, like shoveling snow — which requires more oxygen to be delivered to the heart — can also increase heart attack and stroke risks.
Beware of Other Factors
But cold weather isn’t all to blame. Research out of Los Angeles, California, suggests that the mortality rate of heart attack and stroke increase in areas that don’t experience a drastic temperature change during the winter. So, what are other factors? Holiday stress and seasonal depression may play a role. “Depression has a strong correlation with a lot of myocardial infarction,” Yang says. “There is a huge connection with depression, as well as stress. An increased amount of stress means you have an increased risk of having a heart attack.” Other theories include lack of exercise and an unhealthy diet during the winter months, along with excess drinking during the holiday season, which stresses the heart.
Know the Signs
Whether you’re feeling the joy or a bit blue during the holidays, it’s important to know the symptoms of stroke and heart attack and to take action if you think you’re experiencing any of them. While symptoms vary from one person to the next, Yang says that stroke warning signs include loss of vision, balance issues, weakness on one side, or drooping of the face on only one side. “Heart attack signs include chest pain, chest pressure, or even shortness of breath when exerting yourself and then improvement after resting,” he says. “You may break into a sweat for no reason at all, or experience exertional nausea."
Boost Heart Health
Take these precautions during the winter months to reduce your risk:
- Don’t overexert yourself — take a break from shoveling snow if you need to.
- Dress warmly if you plan to spend time outside.
- Try to avoid stressful situations during the holidays. If that’s not possible, learn ways to manage your stress.
- Stick to your prescribed treatment plan. Get regular exercise and eat healthy, allowing for the occasional indulgence. And be sure to pack your meds if you travel — take the whole bottle in case there are delays.
While you may be able to take precautions to prevent heart attack and stroke during the winter months, heart disease prevention and management is a year round commitment, says Yang. Diet, exercise, managing your cholesterol, and keeping your blood pressure in a healthy range go a long way in preventing heart disease all year long.