Heart Attack Rates Jump at the Holidays—Lower Your Risk
While the holidays are a time of gathering and festivities, they’re also a time when hospitals see a spike in patients with heart attacks and other cardiac emergencies. It turns out that some of the same factors that make the season merry—from classic dishes to family travel—also strain the heart and cardiovascular system.
“Heart attack risk goes up in December for many reasons, like the foods, travel, anxiety, and other stressors that pile up at this time of year,” says cardiologist Marc Eisenberg, MD, co-author of “Am I Dying: A Complete Guide to Your Symptoms—and What to do Next.”
In fact, researchers who studied over a decade of hospital admissions found that Christmas—especially Christmas Eve—brought a 37 percent greater risk of heart attacks. Their results, published in the British Medical Journal, concluded that the risk is especially great for those over 75, or who have a history of diabetes or coronary artery disease.
“Everyone gets caught up in gifts, events, and cooking, but at the end of the day, nothing is more important than your health,” Dr. Eisenberg says.
Tips for Minimizing Cardiac Risk
For those who have been diagnosed with a heart-related condition—and for those who haven’t—Dr. Eisenberg shares the following advice:
Don’t ignore new symptoms: Too often, if someone feels short of breath or notices leg swelling near the holidays, they don’t want to stop everyone’s fun, so they figure they’ll just call the doctor later. But that procrastination often creates emergencies, says Dr. Eisenberg. Death is more likely to occur en route to the hospital or in the ER during the holidays, he points out, suggesting that people are waiting too long to address symptoms. “You might not want to ruin anyone’s holiday by going to the ER, but it’s going to be worse for them if you slump over in your dessert.”
If traveling, reduce your risk of clots: Prolonged sitting in a car or plane increases your risk for developing blood clots in your legs. These clots can break off and move to your lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism (clot in your lung), which can be quickly fatal. Lower your risk by taking breaks: on a plane, walk the aisle when you can, or at least move your feet while sitting. If driving, pull into a rest stop or other safe area every hour to walk around. If you get to your destination and have new leg pain or swelling, shortness of breath, or palpitations, immediately go to the ER for an ultrasound to rule out a clot. Starting blood thinners promptly if you do have a clot can save your life.
Try low-salt holiday recipes: “From Thanksgiving through Christmas and Hannukah, all the holiday foods are very salty, which is a huge issue,” says Dr. Eisenberg. He explains that too much sodium can cause fluid retention, which leads to or worsens high blood pressure. This American Heart Association holiday recipe collection (which includes apple bread pudding and roasted turkey with butternut squash) is a great place to start for low-sodium dishes.
Limit alcohol: Doctors use the term “holiday heart” to describe drinking at an event or gathering, then suffering from dizziness, shortness of breath, or palpitations a few days later. Dr. Eisenberg explains these symptoms are a delayed reaction to alcohol, and they could lead to a stroke. In general, too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure, putting partiers at an increased risk for heart attacks, strokes, aortic dissections (a tear in the aorta, which is the main artery leading away from the heart), and heart failure. So limit your alcohol intake during the holidays.
Triple-check your meds: Forgetting blood pressure or other daily medications is a common mistake with holiday travel. Make sure you’ve packed all prescriptions, but if you do forget, don’t try to get by without them. “Not taking a blood pressure medication for a few days could cause ‘rebound high blood pressure,’ meaning your blood pressure climbs even higher than it was before,” says Dr. Eisenberg. If you left your meds behind, contact your doctor so they can call a supply for the days you’re away into a local pharmacy.
Use a blood pressure monitor: Blood pressure monitors are easy to pick up at a pharmacy. Have one handy at home or pack one for travel, so if you don’t feel well, you can take a reading (sit in a relaxed position for several minutes before you do and keep a record of the results). If your reading is very high (such as the top number above 180) or very low (such as the top number below 100), especially if you’re having symptoms, go to the nearest urgent care or emergency room.
Check on aging parents: The holidays often prompt adult kids to visit aging parents, who they may not have seen for a while. “All of a sudden they realize mom has leg swelling or dad can’t walk across the room,” says Dr. Eisenberg. “If one of your family members has developed a problem, call their doctor or covering doctor and explain what you’re seeing. Maybe the doctor doesn’t even know.” Consider extending your visit to attend the doctor’s appointment.
Relieve stress: Holidays can bring stressors like seeing toxic family, budget worries, and other anxieties. It’s also a time of year when seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is prevalent. Stress and depression can put additional strain on the heart, so take a deep breath and put things in perspective, Dr. Eisenberg says. If you feel you need additional help, seek a licensed therapist or other support.
Get your healthcare up to date beforehand: In the weeks leading up to the holidays, make sure you’ve had all your routine medical check-ups and screening tests. Also get your COVID-19, flu, and other vaccinations (like RSV, if you’re eligible), especially if you’re gathering with anyone who is elderly or very young.
Marc S. Eisenberg, MD, is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center