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‘Tis the season to be jolly, but amidst all the trimmings and trappings of winter lie a more depressing trend: heart attacks. Studies show that wintertime brings a corresponding spike in heart attacks, particularly for those already suffering from a heart condition.
There are a few reasons why winter poses such a threat to our health.
1. Cold weather
At a basic level, the cold can increase your risk for heart attack. Cold temperatures cause the arteries to restrict, decreasing blood flow and oxygen supply to the heart. And since your heart is already working harder to pump blood through the body to maintain your body heat, the stress can elevate your risk of a heart attack.
2. Shoveling or over exertion
Shoveling is one of the main culprits of wintertime heart attacks because it increases the work your heart has to do. As Dr. Kris Nielson from The Heart Center at St. Mark's Hospital explains: "Overexertion in cold weather stresses the heart by raising blood pressure and heart rate which can lead to a heart attack."
3. The winter blues
The holidays can be wonderful, but they are also a stressful time of year. Between making plans with family, preparing gifts and meals, and the weather itself, the winter season can take a toll.
According to Dr. Stephen P. Glasser, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, the change in daylight hours can have dramatic effect on our heart health: "(The increased ratio of dark hours during the day) changes the hormonal balance, and the hormones involved, such as cortisol, can lower the threshold for a cardiovascular event."
How to prevent winter heart attacks:
Knowledge is key to prevention. Dr. Nielson says, "The risk for heart attacks can be reduced by following the recommendations of the American Heart Association. When shoveling snow, warm up slowly for 10 minutes by using a small shovel or snow thrower. Also, take frequent breaks while shoveling. Avoid eating a big meal before or shortly after shoveling and avoid alcohol before or immediately after shoveling snow. If you do experience chest discomfort, seek medical attention immediately."
Additionally, pay attention to the weather and prepare accordingly. Be sure to dress warmly, particularly in windy weather, to retain body heat while outside in the cold.
While it's impossible to change weather and daylight patterns, be mindful of your stress levels through the winter — and especially the holiday — season. Make time for yourself to relax, and don't neglect self-care, such as a healthy diet and exercise.
With proper preparation and knowledge, you can take significant steps to prevent a crisis and protect your heart health all winter long.