The songs of the season paint a romantic picture this time of year. But the reality is that the holidays, with their inevitable stresses, piles of rich food, and glasses of eggnog, can be very bad for your heart. Studies have shown that heart disease related deaths jump 5% this time of year; that’s almost 1,500 deaths each day. In fact, Americans have the most heart attacks on Christmas Day, the day after, and New Year’s. Here’s how to keep you or your loved ones from becoming one of them.
1. Give Peace a Chance
What can go wrong: Planning, shopping, wrapping, cleaning, cooking, hosting -- your to-do list balloons at the holidays. Add high expectations that the big day goes well, and your stress level can soar. Rising stress hormones elevate your blood pressure and heart rate, setting the stage for a heart attack.
What you can do: Bring a little peace back to the process -- arrange a 1 to 1 gift exchange so you have fewer folks to shop for, pick up a few premade options for the big meal from a local supermarket, take 5 minutes each day to breathe and remind yourself that everything will get done (and you might even have fun doing it!) If you feel depressed at the holidays, as many people do, talk to a good friend or a professional to ease the burden.
2. Get in the Spirit With Fewer Spirits
What can go wrong: The chemicals in alcohol can be toxic and irritating to heart muscle. And drinking alcohol in excess can trigger atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that increases your risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart failure.
What you can do: Enjoy low-fat eggnog without the rum, opt for mulled cider instead of mulled wine, stick to one glass of wine with dinner, enjoy sparkling water and conversation instead of champagne.
3. Pare Down That Platter
What can go wrong: Research has shown that eating one high fat meal can render your arteries less effective at pumping blood for up to 12 hours. Fat can cause the lining of your arteries to spasm, reducing the space for blood to flow. At the holidays when one big meal follows another, your arteries have few chances to recover from the damage.
What you can do: Treat this time of year like an eating marathon and not a sprint. Fill your plate with vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains at meals, saving a little bit of room for richer treats.
4. Beware the Open Fire
What can go wrong: Chestnuts aren’t the only things that roast by an open fire. The particles in wood smoke contain toxins that are damaging to your arteries and can cause respiratory conditions such as asthma to flare, all of which leaves you more susceptible to a heart attack.
What you can do: Make sure your fireplace is well ventilated, light it at just a few special times, such as Christmas Eve, and don’t sit right beside it.
5. Stay on Track
What can go wrong: Experts think one reason heart attacks rise during the holidays is that people often miss medications and skip their regular exercise with everything else that is going on.
What you can do: Remember to bring your medications when you travel, don’t skip doctors’ appointments, and keep up your usual activity level (invite the family along for your daily walk). But remember that when temperatures drop, blood vessels start to restrict, raising blood pressure. So begin any outdoor activity slowly and, if you have any risk factors for heart disease, leave the snow shoveling to others.
6. Know When to Get Help
What can go wrong: Scientists suspect that death rates from heart attacks increase at the holidays because people wait too long to get help. Some may attribute their discomfort (which is often mild in the beginning) to indigestion; others may not want to be a bother on the big day.
What you can do: If you, or someone you are with, are experiencing any symptoms of a heart attack, don’t wait to see if it passes, call 911 and get to the nearest emergency room.
Heart attack symptoms:
- Pain or discomfort in the center of the chest that may feel like pressure, squeezing or fullness
- Pain in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
- Shortness of breath
- Sweating and exhaustion
- Nausea and dizziness
Women especially should be on the lookout for the last 3 symptoms. Women often don’t experience the classic center chest pain and therefore may not get the fast treatment they need.