Heart attack deaths increase during holiday season
While the holiday season is a time for joyful celebrations with family and friends, it's also a time to pay attention to our hearts, including our heart health. Studies have found the number of heart attack deaths is higher during the holiday season than any other time of the year.
"We see a definite increase in the number of hospital admissions for both chest pain and heart attacks during the winter months," says Williamson Medical Center cardiologist Jerry Franklin, M.D. "While colder weather is more demanding on the heart, additional factors related to the holiday season play into the statistics."
In a 2004 study published in the journal Circulation, researchers looked at 53 million U.S. death certificates from 1973 to 2001 and discovered an increase of 5 percent more heart-related deaths during the holiday season. In fact, the number of deaths related to heart attacks and heart disease is highest Dec. 25, second highest Dec. 26 and third highest Jan. 1.
"During the holiday season we tend to be less compliant with healthy diets by eating more salt and fat and drinking more alcohol than usual," Franklin says. "The addition of salt to your diet increases blood pressure and fluid retention, both of which make the heart work harder."
In addition, those traveling may forget medications that help control risk factors for heart attack and heart disease, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and physical activity often is reduced this time of year.
While celebrations take center stage, the pressure to "fit it all in" or make gatherings perfect can take its toll in the form of stress. Franklin, who is the medical director for the cardiac catheterization lab at Williamson Medical Center, says how we deal with added pressure can influence our health.
"While spending time with your family is a blessing, it can be really stressful," he says. "Increased stress hormones can be toxic to the heart arteries as well as the rest of your body."
Heart attacks commonly occur because plaque buildup ruptures in the arteries. Stress hormones increase the stress on plaque, making it more vulnerable to rupture, Franklin says. And, when a heart attack does occur, sufferers may be more likely to delay treatment because they are visiting family in an unfamiliar town or simply don't want to interrupt the festivities.
"So often during the holidays, people blame indigestion or another non-life-threatening health condition," Franklin says. "While the symptoms for heart attack and indigestion can be somewhat similar, indigestion that isn't quickly relieved by antacids should be evaluated in the emergency room."
Adding to the confusion for women is the fact that they don't always suffer what many consider to be traditional heart attack symptoms, rather experiencing breathlessness, fatigue, unexplained nausea or other unusual symptoms.
"Since women typically are the cooks, they may be even less likely to drop what they are doing and seek medical care," Franklin says.
The key to minimizing damage from a heart attack is seeking treatment quickly, and Franklin says a correlation exists between survival and arrival time at the hospital. The longer patients experience symptoms without seeking treatment, the more difficult it is to open blocked arteries and the more heart muscle patients lose. The gold standard is to open a blocked artery within 90 minutes of arrival at the Medical Center.
"The death rate for heart attack sufferers before reaching the hospital is far higher than the death rate for patients after reaching the hospital because treatment can begin," Franklin says. "The key is recognizing symptoms of a heart attack and seeking help, regardless of your social calendar."
Chest Pain Center evaluates symptoms
If you experience chest pain or other symptoms that cause concern, don't hesitate to seek treatment. Chest pain has many causes and sometimes it may not be apparent whether you are having a heart attack. The accredited Saint Thomas Chest Pain Center at Williamson Medical Center has the tools to diagnose whether your chest pain is heart-related or caused by another condition.
If you experience any of the symptoms below, call 911 immediately.