Despite the joy and happiness that we all associate with the holidays, they can be hard on the heart. Several studies support that heart attack and cardiac death rates are highest in December and January. One study even suggests that the number of heart deaths is highest on Dec. 25, followed by Dec. 26 and then Jan. 1. The reasons for the holiday spike are not completely clear, but several factors have been suggested as contributors.
- The holidays can be emotionally stressful. Emotional stress can predispose people to damaged heart arteries and heart attacks just like the stress experienced when doing physical activity, like shoveling snow.
- When people are having symptoms of chest pain or shortness of breath before the holidays, they tend to put off seeking help so as not to spoil time with friends and family (especially if they are traveling away from home). This leads to more events over the actual holidays. Pay attention to these symptoms and seek help early, even if you are out of town.
- Viral illnesses such as the flu, particularly influenza B, have been associated with higher risk of having a heart attack. Make sure you protect yourself as much as possible and get a flu shot.
Often the activities we participate in during the holiday season can have negative effects on our heart health.
- Diets high in salt and fat can cause fluid retention and raise your blood pressure, both of which can put undue stress on the heart and lead to a higher risk of stroke, abnormal heart rhythms and even heart failure over time.
- Drinking too much alcohol over the holidays can also lead to heart problems. There is a syndrome called “holiday heart” in which people who drink excessively over a weekend or holiday week develop heart palpitations or an abnormal heart rhythm, known as atrial fibrillation, when they go back to work and their bodies try to adjust to a normal schedule. Avoid holiday heart by celebrating only in moderation.
- Lack of exercise is also a problem over the holidays. Many people do pretty well with their exercise regimen during regular times but will stop exercising over the holidays due to the cold and lack of time. Once they get out of their routine, it is often very hard to restart even with a new gym membership bought over the holidays. It is also important to know that being physically fit can make up for the few extra pounds you might have gained this year. Studies show that being physically fit can offset many of the heart-related risks of being overweight.
Solution: Even during the holidays, do your best to preserve time for short exercise periods of 15-20 minutes per day. Do your best to avoid foods high in salt and strive to limit portion sizes.
Watch your weight. It has often been said that people typically gain 5-7 pounds between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but studies show this probably isn’t true. Instead, people who are normal weight gain on average only 1 pound during this season. However, people who are already overweight gain 2-5 pounds. The real issue, according to these studies, is that once people gain the holiday weight, they never lose it and year after year the weight accumulates and can lead to a sharp increase in heart disease. Be sure to try to maintain a healthy balance over the holidays and avoid the weight gain. If you do gain a pound or 2, make it your New Year’s resolution to lose it before February rolls around.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important throughout the entire year. The exceptional team of cardiologists and heart care providers throughout the Cone Health network are dedicated to educating the community on healthy lifestyle choices and providing excellent treatment to patients dealing with conditions, such as heart disease.
Daniel Bensimhon, MD, is the medical director of Cone Health’s Advanced Heart Failure Program, and a cardiologist at Cone Health Medical Group HeartCare at Church Street. Bensimhon is a 1998 graduate of University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He completed both his residency in internal medicine and his fellowship in cardiology at Duke University Medical Center.