Heart Attacks Rise in Winter

Risk for Heart Attacks Rises in Winter. Do Not Worry, Just Be Ready

The Wall Street Journal (December 11, 2006) reported interesting data from a study by researchers from Massachusetts who reviewed 260,000 heart attacks over a two-year period from 15,000 hospitals all over the country. Their conclusion was that the maximum risk for heart attack was in
the winter months. In fact, the rate of attacks was twice as high in January than in July. They also found that heart attacks in winter (December 21 –March 19) were much more fatal then during summer (June 21-September 22).

What are the reasons for a spike in heart attacks during the winter months? We all know about chrono-physiological changes in biorhythms of functions and pathology. For example, circadian rhythmical pattern depends on the time of the day. Heart attacks are more common between 2 and 5 am, stroke – between 4 and 6 am upon awakening, kidney stone pain erupts in the morning hours and night shift workers are faced the higher risk for breast cancer. Weekly patterns are seen with a Monday morning increase in ambulance calls and ER visits with heart attack symptoms.

Seasonal changes, however, are more difficult to explain. Among the risk factors are:

  1. Cholesterol. During December in men and January in woman blood cholesterol levels are highest, according to the Harvard Man’s Health Watch.
  2. Other chemical risk factors such as fibrinogen, C-reactive protein, and apolipoprotein B, all of which are linked to heart attacks, also rise in the winter.
  3. Temperature. Cold produces spasms of blood vessels and in case of circulatory disorders some capillaries might be blocked.
  4. Alcohol. High amounts of alcohol consumption during winter might damage the heart or trigger a heart attack if the heart was already damaged.
  5. Smoke exposure. Increased amount of smoking during wintertime with closed windows created exposure to further nicotine damage in an already damaged heart.
  6. Daylight changes. Sunlight protects the heart by decreased production of stress hormones. Darkness might increase stress hormones and decrease vitamin D.
  7. Heavy work, like snow shoveling, produces sudden increased intrathoracic (inside the chest) pressure causing sudden increase in the heart workload.
  8. Increased frequency of infections and other disorders.

Given all these important points, what is one to do? Some doctors go so far as to recommend not even to pick up a shovel because, “That is what teenagers are for.” Advice about healthy drinking and smoking habits, sleeping well, and never trying to shovel your snow if you older than 50 is too
abstract and not practical.

Yes, winter imposes certain risk for heart problem, but we should not get scared and shy away from activities. We should prepare and be careful. Winter walking or skiing are wonderful activities to prevent cold infections and prepare your heart. Snow shoveling might be extremely pleasant and healthy (if you find snow during global warming). But, if snow comes in heavy amounts and cleanups are unavoidable, the person should do it lightly, carefully correlating his abilities and level of strain. Winter might be bad or good for your heart. In each case it is important to consult your doctor about the maximum physical activity during the wintertime.

Ref: Tara Parker-Pope. The Wall Street Journal. December 11, 2006