7 Reasons Your Heart Attack Risk Is Highest in the Winter

Learn how to protect your health when the temperature drops.

Can the season really affect the heart?

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It doesn’t seem like the outside temps should affect your ticker, but research shows a link between cold weather and heart attack risk. One U.S. study looking at about 600,000 heart failure hospitalizations over three years found that the likelihood of dying—and spending more and staying longer in the hospital—spiked in the winter. (Watch out for these 10 silent signs of congestive heart failure.) A Canadian study of about 113,000 heart failure patients 65 and older reports that for every 1°C (1.8°F) the average temperature drops, heart attack risk increases by 0.7 percent. So going from 75°F to 32°F, for instance, would increase risk by about 17 percent. There are a number of reasons why your heart is more vulnerable in the coldest months. Don't miss these other times heart attacks are more likely to occur.

Your blood vessels constrict

When your body is working to keep your body warm, it focuses most on protecting vital organs like the brain and lungs from extreme temperatures. One of its responses is to constrict blood vessels, making it harder for blood to reach your whole body. “It’s trying to preserve blood flow to your vital organs,” says Martha Gulati, MD, cardiologist at The University of Arizona and editor-in-chief of CardioSmart.org. That means your heart needs to beat harder and faster to supply your body with the oxygen it needs, she says. For instance, walking down the block might be easy breezy in the spring, but that distance leaves your heart pounding when it’s cold out. As your heart rate and blood pressure increase, you raise your risk of blood clots, stroke, and heart attack. Protect yourself by dressing warm—especially your hands, feet, and head, which can lose a lot of body heat—so your heart doesn’t have to work so hard to regulate your temperature, says Dr. Gulati. Read these 7 signs you could be headed for a heart attack to see if you're at risk.

Snow becomes a hassle

It’s bad enough that any physical activity leaves your heart pounding, but adding new tasks into the mix raises your risk even more. For example, you don’t need to worry about shoveling show during the summer, but the chore puts an extra strain on your body. Your heart is already working overtime to keep you toasty while you shovel, and the strain of lifting heavy snow makes it pump even harder, says William Frishman, MD, MACP, director of medicine at Westchester Medical Center and chairman of the medicine department at New York Medical College. Adding to the risk, it might be harder to recognize what’s happening. “They think their chest hurts because they’re shoveling—the muscle aches because they’re shoveling—and they keep going,” says Dr. Frishman. (Don't miss these other 7 silent signs of a heart attack.) Keep your heart safe by paying a kid in your neighborhood to shovel your driveway. Kids’ hearts aren’t as susceptible to heart disease, so the extra work won’t put them at risk, says Dr. Frishman. If you do have to deal with your own shoveling, take breaks, especially if you experience, chest pain, shortness of breath, or sweating. Call 911 if the symptoms don’t go away—even though it might be one of these 7 scary chest pains you might mistake for a heart attack.

You eat more unhealthy foods

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Gaining weight during the holidays isn’t exactly a surprise, but your eating habits don’t just affect your waistline—they could put your heart at risk, too, says Dr. Gulati. Saturated fat and sodium are linked with cardiovascular problems any time of year, but cookie swaps and indulgent foods at holiday parties make you more likely to indulge. “The biggest issue is salt because it retains fluids,” says Dr. Gulati. When you have underlying heart problems, all that water in your body makes it harder for your heart to pump. Dr. Gulati recommends drinking plenty of water before heading to a party, then filling up on healthy hors d'oeuvres like veggies and hummus instead of sweets and alcohol. Plus, stay away from these 13 foods heart doctors try never to eat.

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You pig out more

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The health factor of the food on your plate isn’t the only eating habit that puts you at risk during the winter. The sheer amount of food people eat in the winter could create a heart attack risk, says Dr. Frishman. Any time you eat a heavy meal, your digestive system begs for more blood to help keep things moving. When you go out in the cold after a heavy meal, though, your body has a hard time keeping up with the demands—and it all goes back to those constricted blood vessels in the cold. “There’s very little blood going to the heart, and yet the stomach says, ‘I need blood,’” says Dr. Frishman. Together, those factors could create a perfect storm for a heart attack, he says. In addition to keeping warm and eating healthy, he recommends exercising either before a meal or after you’ve had time to digest so the physical activity doesn’t strain your heart even more. Learn more about how to have the most heart-healthy day ever.

Flu risk is higher

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As if you didn’t already have enough reasons to get a flu shot, here’s another: It could protect your ticker. One study found that getting a flu vaccine cuts the risk of cardiac event—including heart attack, stroke, and even death—by about a third over the next year. If you skip your shot and come down with the flu, your system goes under a lot of stress. Fighting the illness zaps your energy and puts demands on your body when you already have a weak heart, says Dr. Gulati. “If you get the flu as an elderly person, the physiologic demands to the body and to the heart can be what ultimately kills you,” she says. Even if you do come down with the flu after getting vaccinated, you’ll probably get less sick than you would have without the shot, so your body won’t be so overworked. As always, be sure you ask your doctor about these 5 heart tests that could save your life.

Your stress is skyrocketing

As much as we look forward to the holiday season, it can actually get pretty stressful. Between prepping holiday food to dealing with family drama, you might start getting frazzled. Research links activity in the amygdala (the part of the brain associated with stress) with higher risk for cardiovascular events, which is why Dr. Gulati recommends doing your best to keep stress levels down during the hectic time of year. “We have to remember to take care of ourselves and focus on self-care as much as we care for other people,” she says. Make sure to make time for exercise, which has the double benefit of reducing stress levels and directly strengthening your heart. Check out these other 45 things cardiologists do to protect their own hearts.

The holidays feel lonely

Sounds hokey, but loneliness really can break your heart. One study in the BMJ journal Heart found that poor social relationships increased heart attack risk by nearly 30 percent. If you’re spending this winter alone, the holiday season can be a time of sadness instead of cheer. “During the holiday season, people have memories of past Christmases,” says Dr. Frishman. Depression also has been linked with greater heart attack risk, possibly because the mental health condition makes it harder to keep up with heart-healthy habits. If you’re feeling isolated this winter, try volunteering during the holidays. You might find the good cheer comes right back to you when the “helper’s high” activates pleasure centers of the brain. Always double check with a doctor, but this is how to tell the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest.

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