The holiday season heart attack

Starting around American Thanksgiving, through the Christmas season, and peaking on New Year’s Day is an interesting phenomenon becoming known as the “Merry Christmas Coronary” or “Happy New Year Heart Attack”.

The holiday season is wrapped and beautifully presented as a time of cheer and merriment, so why the increase in cardiac deaths during this time?

Holiday cheer often centres around food. A rich fatty meal, which is also usually high in salt, can have an almost immediate stress effect on the heart, even as it is being digested.

“Research shows that a meal high in saturated fat can increase blood pressure and have a negative effect on the lining of the blood vessels within just a few hours,” said Dr. Mikhail Kosiborod, a visiting cardiologist to The Heart Health Centre.

Lack of exercise and weight gain during the seasonal rush puts additional stress on a weakened heart.

Most people enjoy a glass of bubbly, but excess alcohol can also have negative effects on the cardiovascular system. Large amounts of alcohol can irritate the heart muscle to trigger an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation causes the heart to beat ineffectively and increases the chance for a blood clot to form.

Efforts to create and experience the “perfect” holiday can also raise emotional stress levels to new heights.

Gift buying, cooking, entertaining, partying, travelling, unfamiliar environments, lack of sleep and exercise contribute to increased stress, which can have negative effects on heart health.

“Chronic stress has been associated with progression of atherosclerosis – a condition in which fat and cholesterol collects inside the walls of the arteries. In addition, several prior studies show that acute emotional stress may increase the risk of a heart attack,” Dr. Kosiborod said.

Other common reasons for the spike in cardiac deaths during this time of year include: respiratory illness (common during the winter months) which can stress the heart; medications are often skipped or forgotten; and there may be a delay in seeking treatment.

People often ignore the first signs and symptoms of a heart attack because they don’t want to spoil holiday merriment for others or themselves.

This holiday season, give the gift of health to yourself and your loved ones by following a few simple heart saving tips.

Eat your heart out (the healthy way) – include heart healthy food choices into every meal, load up on fruits and veggies, fibre-rich whole grains, lean meat/fish/skinless chicken, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. Make a party plan. Don’t arrive hungry.

Have a small healthy snack before checking out the buffet line. Use a smaller plate to control portion size and make a conscious effort to limit high-fat items (fried foods, cream-based soups, cheese-filled dishes, sausages, pastries, and pies). Choose flavoured water over punch, alcohol, and soda. Bring along a healthy dish to share and place your focus on socialising rather than food.

Keep moving – make room in your busy schedule to exercise. Aim for at least 30 minutes a day to help keep the holiday pounds from piling on. Exercise is also a great way to reduce and manage stress.

Be informed – discuss with your doctor if a flu shot is appropriate for you. Be careful with certain cold medications and decongestants as many of these should not be used if you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure or other cardiovascular conditions. Don’t ignore the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. Seek medical attention immediately.

Jodie Kelley, RN, is an education and programme coordinator based in Cayman Islands.