Eric Murray – Holidays: Prime time for heart attacks |

Eric Murray – Holidays: Prime time for heart attacks

Eric Murray / Grand Health
Kremmling, CO Colorado

You may be surprised to learn that the holiday season is prime time for heart attacks. But it should come as no surprise that a heart attack at this time is likely to be denied or ignored by the person having it.

Think about it. You’re in the kitchen carving the turkey, and it’s time to get the rolls out of the oven. That chest pain you’re feeling … it has to be stress, you think. And you’re simply too busy to have a heart attack.

Or you’re at your sister’s house, settling in for the football game. You’re feeling indigestion after eating a huge meal and sweat is pouring down your face because it’s warm in the room. Your wife knows something is wrong and wants to call an ambulance, but you insist that you’re perfectly fine. What if you rushed to the emergency room only to be sent back home with a diagnosis of eating too much turkey dinner?

You may find those stories unlikely, but emergency room doctors have heard them far too many times. One study found 5 percent more heart-related deaths during the holiday season. The top three days for such deaths, in order were: December 25, December 26 and January 1. Heart doctors offer several plausible explanations.

HEAVY EATING: Most Americans know that too much indiscretion at the table can eventually lead to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, abdominal obesity and other heart problems. But even one rich meal can also stress the heart, increasing heart rate and blood pressure and perhaps increasing the risk of a blood clot forming in a coronary artery.

TOO MUCH ALCOHOL: In moderation, alcohol such as red wine is said by many to be good for the heart. But the holiday spirit often leads to binge drinking which increases the risk of both heart attack and stroke.

Too much alcohol can also irritate the heart muscle and initiate an irregular rhythm known as atrial fibrillation, making it difficult for the heart to pump blood efficiently. Atrial fibrillation increases the risk of blood clotting and can lead to a heart attack.

TOO MUCH STRESS: There’s no shortage of stress during the holiday season, whether caused by lack of time, too much work, not enough sleep, financial pressures or family conflicts. Stress hormones tend to increase heart rate and blood pressure, sometimes causing a spasm of the coronary arteries and triggering a heart attack. Stress is also frequently associated with depression, which in turn is linked to a high risk of heart disease.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: If you have heart conditions resulting from heart attack, cardiac surgery, angioplasty, congestive heart failure or other causes, you should understand that the holidays are no time to let your guard down. Take your medications as prescribed and if you are not already, get in to a cardio rehabilitation program. The holidays are busy but rehabilitation programs need to be continued.

And even though you should be entitled to some dietary leeway over a holiday period, don’t overdo fatty foods, salt or alcohol.

Dr. Baker, Cardiologist and fellow of American College of Cardiology, reminds that heart disease is still the leading cause of death in America and that it is largely preventable. “It is important for everyone to have risk factor assessment,” he said. Such assessments consist of blood pressure checks, cholesterol checks, screening for diabetes and discussion about family history. “The trick is to identify issues before it turns into disease.”

If you know that you have low stress tolerance or if you’re prone to holiday depression, you may need to set aside some time each day when you can get away from the madding crowd and relax. Regular exercise can help. And try to steer clear of situations that are likely to result in anger or emotional stress.

But even if you have never had heart disease or stress related illness, you should be on the alert for signs of a heart attack. The most common symptoms include:

• Chest pain-sensations of tightness, squeezing, burning, aching, heaviness or choking in the center of the chest lasting longer than 10 minutes;

• Pain or discomfort radiating out to the arms, shoulders, neck or jaw (particularly on the left side);

• Lightheadedness, intense sweating, nausea, shortness of breath or fainting.

It’s important to remember that symptoms vary in severity and nature. Women, for example, are more likely to have vague symptoms that can easily be mistaken for heartburn.

No one wants you to spoil the holidays by worrying needlessly about a heart attack or any illness. But the facts are there, and at least some degree of concern is justified.

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