It’s cold out! People have heart attacks when it’s cold out! You can avoid the cold weather heart attack! But how?
Studies have shown that Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and winter months in general have the highest rates of heart attacks of all the days and months of the year. Why? Even in warmer climates, people have more heart attacks during the winter. Why?
When it’s cold out, and you go and try to spend time outside, your body reacts by vasoconstricting. All your blood vessels contract to try and keep you warm. Mainly, the blood vessels in “non-essential” organs contract like your arms, ears, hands, nose, face, toes, penis (yes) and other peripheral organs. They contract in an attempt to keep blood deep inside your core and help you keep warm. If blood travels to the outer organs that are exposed to the cold temperature, that blood will lose some warmth and when it returns to your core, you will lose heat. Your body doesn’t like that. So your body’s defense mechanism is to try and vasoconstrict your peripheral vessels. Undoubtedly, some of your internal vessels constrict as well (including the ones that supply your heart) and hence you may have chest pain and have a heart attack, Especially, if you have underlying blockages in your heart. If you have a lot of risk factors for heart disease, avoid the cold.
Also, when it’s cold out your heart increase it’s cardiac output and metabolism to try and generate heat for your body, when you are out in the cold. Hence, your heart needs more oxygen. If you have blocked arteries, supply isn’t meeting the new higher demand. If you know you have blockages or have risk factors (smoking, overweight, high blood pressure, diabetes, family history, prior heart attack or stroke), then stay inside and stay warm!
Another reason people have heart attacks in the cold is that they try to over exert themselves. They want to go outside and be a hero. They want to shovel, salt, push neighbors cars, take a walk, and all sorts of activities that require exertion. Or they just joined a gym (new year’s resolution) and suddenly want to work out. They overdo it. If you have underlying blockages in your arteries and over exert yourself, on top of the underlying vasoconstriction and increased cardiac demand for oxygen, you can easily cause your heart to consume far more oxygen than can be met by the supply of oxygen through your constricted, plugged up arteries! If you want to start an exercise program, start slowly, and ask your doctor if you are healthy enough to suddenly start working out, shoveling, and pushing cars on the street.
Another reason is that people may confuse chest pain with a pulled muscle pain. You figure you over-exerted yourself and pulled a chest muscle while shoveling. Right? No big deal. But in fact, you could be having a heart attack. If you are unsure, go to the ER and let them check you out. A simple blood test and ECG is all we need.
Further, other things happen in winter that can ramp up the inflammatory state that can lead to a heart attack. People get the flu, get pneumonia, get a cold, and a multitude of other infections. Any infection leads to higher levels of inflammation and can also increase the chance of a heart attack. A heart attack is a giant inflammatory process. Heart attack risk is highest during winter months even in Florida and Southern California, not because of the cold, but because of the flu! Flu shots lower the risk for heart attacks! Get your flu shots early!
If you plan on going outside to shovel, take lots of breaks. Do 15 minutes, then go back inside and warm up and rest. Let your body readjust. Don’t try to do it all! Don’t drink coffee or smoke when you go inside, both caffeine and nicotine cause your blood vessels to constrict further. Don’t be dumb.
Other issues that may contribute to winter heart attacks are stressful family reunions, mental stress, financial stress, over eating at the holidays, eating more salt and sugar than normal, and smoking more than normal. These are all bad ideas. Don’t let the holidays be a time for your health to regress. You need to make gains, not go backwards!