Can the holidays cause a heart attack?

Uptick in heart attacks between Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s has many wondering if celebrations really are the cause

Statistically, more people experience heart attacks during the holidays. However, most cardiologists would agree the holidays don’t cause heart attacks.

“Stretching from Thanksgiving to Christmas and even into the new year, there is about a 5 percent increase in heart attacks or emergency room visits due to heart-related concerns,” said Abdolreza Agahtehrani, M.D., cardiologist with Norton Heart & Vascular Institute. “Some studies even show about a 15 percent increase just between Christmas and New Year’s Day.”

Many theories may explain the increase in heart attacks during this “most wonderful time of the year.” Most involve overindulging in rich meals and drinking too much alcohol, emotional stress and cold temperatures that can put a strain on blood vessels. All of these raise blood pressure and contribute to heart issues.

Dr. Agahtehrani explained that a week or two of celebrations doesn’t equal a case of sudden cardiac arrest. More than likely, heart disease has been developing for a while.

“Most people who suffer a heart attack have unknown symptoms, such as diabetes or uncontrolled hypertension (high blood pressure), that have been taking a toll on the cardiovascular system overall,” Dr. Agahtehrani said. “In fact, they may have even experienced a few symptoms and either didn’t realize it or ignored it, therefore putting them at even greater risk.”

Stress make matters worse

Although more research is needed to determine exactly how stress factors into heart disease, it is known that when you don’t manage stress, it impacts your heart health. Healthy stress management tools include exercising or talking through the situation.

Unhealthy forms of coping, such as overeating, consuming too much alcohol or internalizing stress, can increase blood pressure and heart rate, putting more stress on the heart muscle.

If you fall into a high-risk category for heart disease, pay extra attention to your body during the holiday season. Many people may have early warning signs of a heart attack, so knowing the symptoms is critical.

Heart attack warning signs

  • Chest discomfort with heaviness, pressure, aching, burning, fullness or squeezing pain
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, left shoulder, neck, back, throat, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sudden fatigue, weakness or lightheadedness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Similar symptoms to indigestion
  • Cold sweat or perspiration
  • Unexplained anxiety
  • Heart palpitations or increased heart rate

If you experience any symptoms, call 911.

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Take care of your heart this holiday season

  • Manage holiday stress. Meditation, deep breathing, a warm bath and getting enough sleep are all great ways to help reduce your stress.
  • Eat healthfully. Limit portions and fill your plate with more fruits and vegetables to help reduce fat and salt intake and prevent excess weight gain during the holidays.
  • Drink in moderation. Binge drinking can increase blood pressure and trigger atrial fibrillation, a common but dangerous heart arrhythmia.
  • Fit in exercise. Thirty minutes of exercise each day will help reduce stress and maintain weight. If you are pressed for time, break up exercise into 10-minute increments.
  • Don’t smoke or quit smoking. If you smoke, make a New Year’s resolution to join Norton Healthcare’s free smoking cessation class.
  • Don’t forget to take your medications during the busy holidays.
  • If you experience symptoms, be sure to communicate those to your family or friends.
  • Get prompt care. Put your heart first and don’t delay care in fear of missing holiday celebrations.

Hands-only CPR can save a life

Should someone near you show signs of a heart attack, call 911. Emergency medical services can begin treatment en route to the hospital. Also, know how to save a life by learning hands-only CPR.

According to the American Heart Association, immediate CPR can double or triple the chance of survival. Follow these two steps if you see a teen or adult who suddenly collapses and isn’t breathing:

  • Call your local emergency response number.
  • Push hard and fast in the center of the chest.

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