For some, the winter holiday season is a guaranteed good time, full of joyful family reunions, gift giving and delicious food. But for others, it can be a stressful couple months.
Now, just weeks away from Christmas and New Year celebrations, the American Heart Association is warning of another, yet unfortunate, holiday custom: heart attacks.
Past research shows fatal heart attacks occur most often between Dec. 25 and Jan. 1 compared to any other time of the year. And experts say being aware of the signs and taking appropriate action could save lives this holiday season.
A 2018 study of 16 years of hospital admissions in Sweden found heart attacks occurred most often on Christmas Eve, followed by Christmas Day. Meantime, there was no increased risk during other holidays or sports events. Risks were highest among people ages 75 and older and those with diabetes or a history of heart disease.
Another study published in 1999 of death certificates in Los Angeles County, California, found the average number of fatal heart attacks was highest in December and January and lowest in June, July, August and September.
“The holidays are a busy, often stressful, time for most of us. Routines are disrupted; we may tend to eat and drink more and exercise and relax less. We also may not be listening to our bodies or paying attention to warning signs, thinking it can wait until after the new year. All of these can be contributors to increasing the risk for heart attack at this time of the year,” Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, volunteer president of the American Heart Association, and Eileen Foell, chair of the department of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, said in a news release.
“This may be even more likely for many people who didn’t get to be with family and friends last year due to COVID-19 restrictions,” they said. “It’s incredibly important to be aware of these risks. Take a few simple steps that can help keep your heart healthy with much to celebrate in the new year.”
What are heart attack warning signs?
Heart attacks occur when oxygen-carrying blood is partially or completely blocked from reaching the heart muscle. Some events are sudden and intense, but most begin slowly by triggering mild pain or discomfort.
Chest pain is the most common heart attack symptom for men and women, but women tend to experience shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting and back or jaw pain more often.
Discomfort in the chest before a heart attack can last for several minutes or go away then return. The sensation is felt in the center of the chest and “can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain,” the American Heart Association (AHA) says.
People can also feel discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach. Other potential signs of a heart attack are breaking out in cold sweats and lightheadedness.
“It’s important to catch [the signs] early and call 9-1-1 for help,” the AHA says. “The sooner medical treatment begins, the better the chances of survival and preventing heart damage.”
Other tips to avoid holiday heart attacks
The winter holiday season is known for its unique foods and sweets, so experts advise “celebrating in moderation.” In other words, “‘tis the season for unhealthy changes in diet and higher alcohol consumption.”
It’s OK to enjoy special holiday meals and desserts, but the AHA advises swapping some options with smaller, healthier alternatives “so you continue to feel your best,” while avoiding excess sodium.
The AHA says exercise, which is typically ignored or reduced during the holidays, can help prevent a heart attack this winter season. The group recommends at least 2.5 hours of physical activity per week.
Importantly, don’t forget to take or refill any medications amid hectic holiday celebrations.
Lastly, “make time to take care of yourself,” the AHA says. “Reduce stress from family interactions, strained finances, hectic schedules and other stressors that tack on this time of year, including traveling.”