Heart attacks increase during the winter months for a number of reasons. Understanding where winter heart risks come from can make it easier to enjoy a safe and heart healthy winter.
When winter comes, the temperature begins to drop. As the weather approaches 32 F, the muscles in our blood vessels start to constrict, making the openings inside of the vessels smaller. When this happens, the pressure in the vessels (blood pressure) starts to rise. The heart has to pump harder to force the blood around the body. This puts more strain on the heart and increases the risk of a heart attack.
For those who live in colder regions, it’s important to stay warm in winter:
- Keep your thermostat up.
- Wear warm clothes. Be sure to protect your hands, feet and head from the cold.
- Stay indoors, especially if a strong wind is blowing.
In colder regions, the rainfall of warmer seasons gives way to winter snow. For many people, this means sidewalks and driveways to shovel or deep snow to wade through. When people undertake strenuous exercise that they are not used to, it puts an extra burden on the heart.
It’s important to refrain from digging snow, or to dig in short spurts with plenty of rest in between. If you do dig snow, don’t load up the snow shovel and heave heavy loads aside. Instead, shovel small amounts and/or push the snow aside where possible. Stop immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Chest pain or discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center or left side of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes or that goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.
- Feeling weak, light-headed, or faint. You may also break out into a cold sweat.
- Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, or back.
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms or shoulders.
- Shortness of breath. This often comes along with chest discomfort, but shortness of breath also can happen before chest discomfort. Heart Attack Symptoms, Risk, and Recovery | cdc.gov
The sun is lower in the horizon in winter, which makes the sunlight weaker. In addition, the days are much shorter. Together, these factors leave people with much less exposure to the sun. When combined with the inclination to stay indoors to avoid bad weather, the weaker sunlight causes many people to suffer from seasonal affectiveness disorder or SAD.
SAD causes depression, which can lead to stress and an increased risk for heart attacks. Light therapy may help. If it doesn’t bring, relief medication and/or therapy may be needed. Light Therapy for the Winter Blues | Rush Memorial Hospital
Many people become so swept up in the holidays that that they completely abandon their normal routine. When this happens, healthy habits are often the first to go. People who normally eat a healthy diet may begin binge eating rich foods that only come around once a year. People who always make time for exercise may be so busy running around that they skip the gym or the track. Those who usually take medications like clockwork may forget a dose or, even worse, go out of town leaving medications at home.
During the holidays it’s important to keep a grip on your routine. You can be flexible, to a point, but don’t throw all of your self-care routines aside. If you do, the consequences may be much more disruptive than taking your medicine on time.
The holidays can be full of joy and meaning, but they can also bring painful memories, relationship issues and the stress of unrealistic expectations. All of these negative things are stressful and can put an extra burden on the heart. When managing your holidays, be aware of your own feelings and don’t be afraid to protect yourself from unwanted stress. Say “no” if you have to and save your time and energy for the things that matter most.