Why does heart attack risk increase in Winter?

Posted on December 11, 2017 by kerri

I’ve long known that there seems to be an increased risk of heart attacks in the winter, particularly when people are shovelling snow, however, I didn’t know exactly why this seemed to be the case. There are many risk factors of having a heart attack that are independent of the colder weather and snow, such as diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and obesity, but—especially if you have one of these conditions—why is winter so risky for your heart?

The Stats

For every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit the temperature drops, a person’s risk of heaving a heart attack rose 2%—this was in a study of over 84,000 heart attack patients [1]—a pretty significant cluster of people! As well, the rate of heart attack was 31% higher in the three coldest months of the year versus the three warmest. [1]

Okay that’s good to know, but why, exactly?

a heart drawn in the snow

Why your heart attack risk could go up in winter

According to Harvard University School of Medicine, there are many reasons your heart attack risk increases in winter.

  • Cold exposuremakes your blood vessels narrow, as they try to concentrate blood into the core of your body. This makes it more work for your heart to get blood to your limbs. [2]
  • Overexertion can lead to overheating – as your body temperature rises, your blood pressure can drop, triggering greater work to be done by your heart… you see where I’m headed. [2]
  • Missed medications or doctors visits. Snowstorms mean missed doctors appointments and late prescription refills. By missing important medications for conditions that can increase your heart attack risk, especially in winter, you could be creating a perfect storm for a heart attack.

What you can do to prevent a heart attack in winter:

  • Dress warmly and put your winter gear on before you get outside to avoid the shock of the cold. [2] Remember to keep your head, hands, and feet warm, too.
  • Dress in layers– if you begin to feel too warm, you can remove a layer. [2]
  • Take a break if you are exerting yourself outside and begin to feel overheated, take a break indoors. [2]
  • Don’t work or exercise too hard outdoors in winter. If you have risk factors for a heart attack, have a friend or family member shovel your snow, especially if it is wet/heavy, or there is lots of it. [2] A hundred people per year die as a direct result heart problems arising from shovelling snow. [3] Sure, it’s a small number… but if you’re at  risk, don’t chance it!
  • Have someone else shovel the snow. I know, I said this already… So here’s a doctor to say it. Dr. Barry Franklin, a cardiologist and Director of Cardiac Rehabilitation and Exercise Laboratories at Willian Beaumont Hospital, actually doesn’t believe anybody over age 55 should shovel snow because of the high level of risk [3]. Franklin believes 100 people per year dying as a result of shovelling snow is an underestimate, and notes the risk is highest in people with the above risk factors, as well as those who have smoked or eaten before shovelling. [3]
    • If you are clearing snow pushing snow rather than lifting it may help. [3] Franklin notes that people tend to hold their breath while clearing snow, which can lead to even greater fluctuations in blood pressure and heart rate, increasing your risk. [3] It may seem advisable to use a snowblower instead, [3] but depending on how heavy it—and the snow—are may still be problematic. [4]
  • Keep your medications up to date. Set reminders to ensure you refill your medications early, avoiding any problems posed by snowstorms or other delays. See your doctor regularly, and reschedule any appointments cancelled due to snow.
  • Exercise regularly… indoors! Develop an indoor exercise program to stay fit in the winter. [2] Indoor exercise will help you avoid many of the risks associated with cold temperatures on your health.
  • Eat right. It’s hard to do during the holidays, but eating a healthy diet lower in saturated fats can keep your heart attack risk low. It’s especially important to keep an eye on your diet if you have heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes.

If you have heart disease, medical identification jewelry is important to wear at all times, but especially in the winter months. For people with diabetes, it is also important to wear a diabetes ID necklace or bracelet.

Stay safe this winter!

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