Steering clear of the Christmas Coronary

Beware of holiday stress causing a heart attack.

The pre-dawn update on my friend’s Facebook page sums up what a lot of folks are feeling right about now.

“Tired and haven’t even started this work day yet,” said Renee, a FedEx driver who dons elf garb while delivering packages in the mad holiday rush. 

Ten hours and 60 deliveries later — with miles to go before she sleeps — Renee quipped, “Feets don’t fail me now!”

Turns out, that should be the least of her worries. A grim reality lurks amid all the dancing sugarplums and jingling bells. It’s heart attack season.

The number of heart-related deaths is higher on Christmas day than on any other day of the year, followed by Dec. 26 and New Year’s Day, according to a 2004 study in the journal Circulation.

In the study, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and Tufts University School of Medicine found a 5 percent overall increase in holiday season heart-related deaths. The findings came after researchers examined 53 million U.S. death certificates covering 1973 to 2001. Although winter weather might seem to be a contributing factor, the findings were consistent throughout the nation — even in mild weather areas like Southern California.

Cold weather constricts blood vessels and raises blood pressure, which may increase the risk of heart attack. You’ve probably heard stories about relatively healthy folks having heart attacks while shoveling snow or performing other physical feats in frigid temps. Further studying the weather connection, researchers from the Heart Institute at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles reviewed 12 years of death records in Los Angeles County, where summer and winter temperatures don’t fluctuate as widely as in other parts of the country. They found one-third more deaths from ischemic heart disease in December and January than in June through September, and postulated that emotional stress and overindulgence surrounding the holidays could be the cause.

So, as heart attack season kicks in, those who fall into high-risk categories for heart attacks and heart disease need to listen to their bodies and watch for warning signs of distress.

Be alert if you:

  • Smoke
  • Have a history of heart disease, high blood pressure or high cholesterol
  • Are overweight
  • Have diabetes
  • Are under a lot of stress

Know the warning signs

  • Chest discomfort with heaviness, pressure, aching, burning, fullness or squeezing pain
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, left shoulder, neck, back, throat, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sudden fatigue, weakness or lightheadedness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Cold sweat or perspiration
  • Unexplained anxiety
  • Heart palpitations or increased heart rate

A 2000 Mayo Clinic study of heart-attack survivors hinted that the two-hour period after a heavy meal is risky. Diverting blood from the heart to aid digestion may also spur angina, or heart-related chest pain.

Doctors urge patients to err on the safe side. Don’t do like some holiday heart attack sufferers, who reason that maybe it’s just indigestion or worry that a trip to the emergency room will put a damper on festivities. (A heart attack would put a real damper on things!)

If you experience any heart attack warning signs, call 911 immediately and ask to go to the emergency room.

Mickey Gramig