Heart attacks spike Dec. 25 to Jan. 7. Is holiday stress to blame?

Arguing family members, trying to find the perfect gift, long lines at the airport. Heart-related deaths spike in the U.S. from Dec. 25 to Jan. 7. Can holiday stress kill you?

Arguing family members, trying to find the perfect gift, long lines at the airport. Heart-related deaths spike in the U.S. from Dec. 25 to Jan. 7. Can holiday stress kill you?

Researchers have several theories why the phenomenon exists. The delights of the season, including rich meals and increased alcohol consumption; emotional stress; cold temperatures that can put strain on blood vessels — all can raise blood pressure and contribute to heart issues.

While cold weather during the holiday season may seem like a rational reason for the spike, a 2016 study in Journal of American Heart Association shows that the heart attack spike doesn’t take summer off. New Zealand experiences the same increase in heart-related deaths around the holidays, which take place during the hottest months of the summer.

Researchers from the University of Melbourne in Australia analyzed New Zealand’s death data from 1988 to 2013 to come up with the “expected” number of deaths for each day of the year. Then they compared the data to the actual deaths each day over the holiday season. They found a 4 percent rise in heart-related deaths over that time period.

The study’s results support a 2004 study published in Circulation that found a 5 percent surge in heart-related deaths during the holiday period, as well as other deaths from natural causes.

The Australian researchers, much like the American researchers, aren’t sure what leads to the spike but offered two theories that were backed by previous data:

Delay in seeking care. During the holiday season when many are traveling, not knowing where to get care or being in a place with limited or remote care can have an impact. Time is critical when dealing with a heart attack, so delaying care can have dire consequences.

Death displacement. Several studies have shown that individuals can speed up or delay their death based on significant dates (a terminally ill mother or father wanting to live to be at their child’s wedding, for example). Individuals may be speeding up or slowing their deaths to either avoid the holiday season or make sure they can celebrate it with family and friends one more time.

As the holiday season kicks in, if you fall into a high-risk category for heart attacks and heart disease, pay close attention to your body.

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
  • Cold sweat or perspiration
  • Unexplained anxiety
  • Heart palpitations or increased heart rate
Take care of your heart this holiday season
  • Manage holiday stress to avoid an extra strain on your heart. Meditation, deep breathing, a warm bath and getting enough sleep are all great ways to help reduce your stress.
  • Eat healthy. Limit portions and fill your plate with more fruits and veggies to help reduce fat and salt intake and prevent excess weight gain during the holidays.
  • Drink in moderation. Binge drinking can increase your blood pressure and trigger atrial fibrillation.
  • 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 a smoking cessation class.
  • Don’t forget to take your medications during the busy holidays.
  • Get prompt care. Put your heart first and don’t delay care in fear of missing holiday celebrations.

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