Holidays and heart attacks

The downside of holiday revelry: December and January are the deadliest months for heart attacks.

More people die of heart attacks in December and January than any other time of the year. The culprits are the usual holiday merrymakers: rich festive feasts and more alcohol. Add to these, a dose of holiday stress and perhaps even more dangerous – simple denial.

Chest pain, which can be a signal of a heart attack, is all too easy to shrug off as indigestion, particularly during the holidays. Who, after all, wants to disrupt or dampen a celebration by overreacting to ‘heartburn’? Plus, with more people travelling over the holiday season, people are often reluctant to visit unfamiliar hospitals or emergency treatment centres.

The result? Precious minutes are lost.

“You have only a short window of opportunity to save heart muscle,” Dr. William Suddath of Washington Hospital Center told the Associated Press. Dr. Suddath and his 24/7 cardiac team aim to start clearing victims’ clogged arteries within 15 minutes of their arrival in the emergency room.

Possible causes of Christmas coronaries

Over-indulgence. High-fat meals stress the heart and can result in elevated blood pressure and heart rate. Too much salt can cause fluid retention, requiring the heart to pump harder. And while alcohol in moderation can be heart-healthy, overindulgence can put extra stress on the heart. More seriously, it can lead to “holiday heart syndrome,” where alcohol irritates the heart muscle and triggers an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation. This in turn can cause a stroke.

Holiday busyness. The hustle bustle of the holidays can lead to the disruption of healthy eating habits and exercise programs as well as elevated stress. (Read about how to reduce holiday stress and build more activity into your holidays.) Some people are so caught up in holiday activities they forget to take their medications or are unable to refill them while travelling.

Cold weather. The wintry weather can constrict blood vessels, and the extra exertion of tasks such as shoveling snow can trigger a heart attack. Seasonal colds and flu can also be a burden to stressed heart. Even so, the holiday spike in heart attacks occurs in warm climates as well, experts say.

Hospital under-staffing. Hospitals may be short-staffed during the holiday season – which can cause a delay in the time it takes to diagnose a heart attack and start clearing the blocked artery. In response, some hospitals are looking to speed care to people suffering from a heart attack with a policy called “door to balloon time”. The idea is to reopen blocked arteries with angioplasties or other procedures within 90 minutes of arrival.

The bottom line
To protect your heart heath this holiday season, experts advise to (1) watch what you eat and drink, (2) keep as much as possible to your regular exercise regimen, (3) try to reduce stress, (4) seek medical attention immediately if you experience any symptoms of a heart attack – don’t wait, and don’t automatically write it off as indigestion.