Numerous studies have shown a disturbing trend of heart attacks increasing over the winter holiday season. In central Wisconsin we might attribute this rise in heart attacks to colder weather, which can affect the heart, or time spent snow shoveling, which can be a dangerous activity for the heart.
However, a major study that took place in Los Angeles in the 1980s and 1990s showed there were about 33 percent more deaths from coronary disease in winter compared to summer. The spike in deaths always began around Thanksgiving. Certainly Los Angeles winter weather is nothing like the brutal cold of central Wisconsin, so it would be hard to conclude that it is just cold weather causing the rise in cardiac-related deaths this time of year.
Dr. Shereif Rezkalla, a Marshfield Clinic Health System cardiologist, said this trend of increased heart attacks over the holidays also has been observed in other countries that have very different holiday traditions than in the United States.
What is the cause?
So if it’s not just cold weather, the stress of the holidays or overindulging in food and drink, what is causing the increase in holiday heart attacks?
I believe it’s multifactorial. The biggest factor in that is social stress around the holidays. No matter what tradition you celebrate, there is usually some stress around the holidays,” Rezkalla said. “And, even if we celebrate different holiday traditions in different countries, usually those celebrations involve more eating and drinking of alcohol than people are used to the rest of the year.”
Rezkalla also pointed out that bad habits we already have, for instance smoking, might intensify with stress of the holidays. People may smoke or drink more to cope with stress they feel.
Rezkalla added that people may be less consistent in taking their needed medications over the holidays, possibly because their schedules change during that time of year, they are traveling, or they are simply busier than usual. People also may be more hesitant to seek medical care when they are enjoying vacation over the holidays.
“These are possible reasons, but no study tells us definitively the exact cause of increased heart attacks during the holidays,” Rezkalla said. “What’s important is to remember to take care of yourself during this time of year. Eat and drink in moderation. Exercise to help manage stress, and make sure you are taking your medications consistently. The holidays are a great time for us all to enjoy, but we need to enjoy in moderation.”
If you’re concerned about your heart health, talk with your care provider.