Heart Health: Is Winter the Heart's Worst Enemy?

According to medical statistics, winter is your heart’s worst enemy. The National Registry of Myocardial Infarction reports that Americans experience 54 percent more heart attacks in winter than in summer, with January as the leading month for heart attacks. Winter heart attacks also tend to be more serious, with a 9 percent fatality rate.

Medical researchers note a variety of reasons why heart attacks are more common during winter months. Cold temperatures cause arteries to tighten, restricting blood flow and reducing the oxygen supply to the heart, all of which can set the stage for a heart attack. Experts say the heart has to work harder in cold weather because blood vessels constrict to help the body maintain body heat. Heart attacks are more likely to occur in the morning hours. The early morning rise in blood pressure that most people experience can increase the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

Heart attacks usually occur in people with atherosclerosis, or a build-up of plaque in their arteries. For a heart attack to occur, some sudden event must cause the plaque to crack and rupture, at which point blood platelets get sticky and form a clot in the artery. This is probably the reason why heart attack rates jump dramatically in the first few days after a major snowstorm, often as a result of snow shoveling. Shoveling snow is extremely demanding, causing the heart to work hard and raising blood pressure. Couple that with cold weather and the risks soar. Unfortunately many people think that the chest pain they experience while snow shoveling is just a pulled muscle and not a heart attack. That is understandable because a classic heart attack is marked by pain in the chest that radiates down the left arm but it can feel like a classic muscle pull.

If you must shovel, push the snow rather than lift it, stay warm and take frequent breaks. If you are older than 50, overweight, out of shape or have suffered a previous heart attack, don’t shovel at all.

Increased rates of influenza and other respiratory disease in the winter weather may also play a role in the increased rate of heart attacks. Infections cause inflammation, which can make plaque less stable and contribute to heart problems.

Fortunately there are many things you can do to help protect yourself from winter heart issues, even if you have had a previous heart attack. Prevention and awareness are the keys. Consider the following:

  • Stick to your excerise plan
  • Join a gym or find other ways to keep your workouts on track indoors
  • Eat healthy and watch your portion sizes
  • Know and manage your blood pressure
  • Don’t ignore symptoms if you feel unwell
  • Get enough sleep

If you find yourself experiencing any of the classic symptoms of a heart attack such as chest or arm pain, nausea, weakness, shortness of breath or sudden confusion seek medical help immediately.

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