Methodist Healthcare - December 01, 2021

“I only eat like this around the holidays.”

“I don’t drink very often, but there are so many social functions this time of year.”

“I thought it was just heartburn. I didn’t want to make a fuss and ruin everyone’s good time.”

Sound familiar? It does to virtually every ER doc in the United States. That’s because many Americans celebrate the holidays with sudden binges of alcohol and food that put added stress on weakened hearts, and they often ignore the warning signs of heart attack.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Someone has a heart attack every 43 seconds. 

But during the holidays, there is an overall five percent increase in heart-related deaths that spikes around Christmas and New Year’s Day. People with heart disease are at the highest risk. 

Factors associated with holiday heart attacks:

  • The holidays are a time when many people feel under greater emotional stress, which can interfere with sleep and weaken the immune system to winter colds and flu. Serious infections and fever can damage the heart muscle.
  • Overindulging in alcoholic beverages, rich foods and foods high in salt increase blood pressure and water retention that put a strain on the heart.
  • Entertaining, social functions and travel can disrupt regular exercise and medication routines:
  • On average, Americans gain one to two pounds during the holidays, which stresses the cardiovascular system.
  • Skipping or not taking medications on time can have dire consequences for people taking insulin or other medications for chronic conditions.
  • Cold weather strains the heart by constricting blood vessels and increasing blood pressure. The blood also clots more readily. Strenuous outdoor activity in extremely cold weather, such as shoveling ice and snow, is hard on the heart.
  • Delaying treatment for symptoms of heart attack so as not to disrupt holiday activities is never a good idea. Every second counts to save a life.

To reduce the risk of heart attack:

  • Keep calm. Manage emotional stress and avoid anger.
  • Stay well. Get a flu shot and wash hands frequently to prevent cold and flu.
  • Eat right. Avoid food and alcohol binges, and select healthier food choices to reduce sodium.
  • Keep moving. Continue normal exercise routines to maintain cardiovascular health and ward off weight gain.
  • Mind the time. Stay on schedule with prescription medications, and if traveling, be sure to carry enough for the trip plus a few days in case of delays.
  • Stay warm. Dress in layers for the weather, and avoid heavy physical exertion in the cold.
If you or a loved one are experiencing signs of a heart attack, call 911 before initiating any level of hands only CPR

Know the symptoms of heart attack, and call 911 immediately if you experience:

  • Chest pain or discomfort.
  • Pain or discomfort in the arms or shoulder.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Feeling weak, lightheaded or faint.
  • Women are more likely to also feel pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck or back.
  • Women may also experience unusual tiredness, nausea or vomiting.

Could you or a loved one be at risk?

Knowing your risk for heart disease is also crucial. Family history, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are all factors that can influence your heart’s health. The earlier you know which factors are at play, the quicker you can get them under control, decreasing your risk for a serious heart event. Start by taking our free risk assessment to calculate your personal level of risk.

Take our free risk assessment

The best part of the holidays is being healthy to enjoy them. So have fun, enjoy time with friends and family, and stay heart-wise.