According to a study published in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association (AHA), the winter holiday season is considered a risk factor for cardiac and noncardiac death. Knowing the signs and seeking emergency treatment quickly are key to saving lives from the “holiday heart attack.”
While researchers don’t know exactly why heart attacks are more common around holidays, they note possible reasons, including changes in diet and alcohol consumption during the holidays; stress from family interactions, strained finances, travel and entertaining; respiratory problems from burning wood; not paying attention to the signs and symptoms of a heart attack, and delaying emergency treatment when it’s a holiday.
An analysis in 2004 of 53 million death records over 26 years from across the United States pinpointed more specifically that more cardiac deaths occurred on December 25 than any other day throughout the year, followed by December 26 and January 1.
Consider the case of Julie Rickman, a super busy 41-year-old stay-at-home mom.
“I felt like we were running around, going everywhere, and I just couldn’t catch my breath,” Rickman said. “I remember, two days before Christmas, we thought I was allergic to my live Christmas tree, and we took it down and got an artificial tree.”
The day after Christmas, Rickman got winded while folding laundry. She thought it was exhaustion but decided to go to the emergency room, anyway. That trip saved her life. Along with two blockages in her heart, doctors also discovered she had suffered a heart attack.
“I have no idea when the heart attack happened. I was one of those women who attributed feeling bad to the holidays and thinking I was exhausted,” she said.
“The progression of heart disease doesn’t happen overnight, so an uptick in cardiac death during the holidays is actually more the acute manifestations of the disease,” said Jorge Plutzky, M.D., a volunteer with the American Heart Association. “Factors like cold weather, stress and dietary indiscretion can contribute to a chain of events leading to more stress on the heart. A cardiac event might be triggered because the heart is working harder.”
Heart attack signs include uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach. Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort. Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
Women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain. If you have any of these signs, call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital right away. Delaying treatment can be the difference between life and death.
Rickman, an AHA Go Red For Women volunteer, has since changed her approach to the holidays and to life. She cut out processed foods and limits sugar. She also limits social engagements and time spent on social media during the holidays and makes a conscious effort to realize being a supermom might not be reality. Stress reduction is key.
“Stress sets off a cascade of events that can over time contribute to hypertension, irregular heart rhythms, higher cholesterol, weaken the immune system, and can contribute to the progression of coronary heart disease. The good news? Just like taking care of your body regularly helps you medically, taking care of your mind regularly helps you mentally and physically,” said Lubna Somjee, PhD, Clinical/Health Psychologist and Executive Coach in the Hudson Valley.
“Be careful who you spend time with as they can impact your medical health. Positive social interactions, mindfulness meditation, deep breathing and practicing gratitude are some great initial steps towards managing stress.
The AHA recommends positive self-talk to help you calm down and control stress. Try stress-stoppers like deep breathing and counting to ten before you speak. Find time for joy and gratitude every day, or take up a hobby you like. Exercise to relieve stress and start meditation practice.
Free American Heart Association resources for stress reduction are available at www.heart.org/stress.
If you’re a heart patient, you’re at higher risk for a heart attack. Remember to take medication as directed, have a follow-up doctor’s appointment, complete a cardiac rehabilitation program, manage risk factors and try to develop a strong support system.