2007-12-19 / Seniors

It's Heart Attack Season

Dear Savvy Senior,

When I had a heart attack last year my doctor told me to take extra precaution during the winter months because my risks of having another one could increase. Is this true? How can the seasons of the year affect your heart?

Old Man Winter

Dear Old:

Everyone knows winter is cold and flu season, but most people don't know that it's also the prime season for heart attacks too. Here's what you should know.

Heart Attack Season

It's true! In the United States, the risks of having a heart attack during the winter months are twice as high as in the summertime. And a heart attack in the winter is also more likely to be fatal than a heart attack during any other time of year. Why? Lots of reasons, and they're not all tied to cold weather. Even people who live in warm climates have an increased risk.

Wintertime Risks

Here are some reasons why heart attacks are more common during the winter than other months and some tips to help you combat them.

Cold weather. When a person gets cold, the body's automatic response is to narrow the blood vessels. Cutting down on blood flow to the sk in means the body doesn't lose as much heat. But for people who already have arteries filled with plaque, the narrowing of the blood vessels raises the risk that one will become blocked, triggering a heart attack. The narrowing also increases blood pressure, which can strain a diseased heart. So bundle up this winter, and keep your blood flowing freely.

Snow shoveling. Believe it or not, studies show that heart attack rates jump dramatically in the first few days after a major snowstorm, usually as a result of snow shoveling. Shoveling snow is incredibly strenuous, causing the heart to work harder and raising the blood pressure. Couple that with the cold temperatures and heart attack risk soars. If you must shovel, push, rather than lift the snow as much as possible, stay warm and take frequent breaks. Better yet, buy a snow blower. And if you're over age 50, overweight or out of shape or have suffered a previous heart attack, don't shovel at all.

New Year's resolutions. It's not just shovelers who run the risk of taxing their heart in the winter. Every January 1, millions of people join gyms or start exercise programs as part of their New Year's resolution to get in shape, and many may overexert themselves too soon. If you have a heart condition or risk factors for heart disease like high cholesterol and high blood pressure, talk to your doctor about what may be appropriate for you.

Stressful season. The holiday season for many people is a very stressful time, causing anxiety, loneliness and depression which are also linked to heart attacks. Check your mood at www.depressionscreening.org and get help, if needed.

Holiday feasting. People tend to eat more, drink more, and gain more weight during the holiday season and winter months- all of which are hard on the ticker and risky for someone with heart disease. Keep a watchful eye on your diet, avoid binging on fatty foods or alcohol and remember: Everything in moderation!

Less daylight. It's a fact that less daylight in the winter can worsen mood problems, increase depression risk and can also affect the heart. Studies that have looked at heart attack patients found they have lower levels of vitamin D, which comes from sunlight, than healthy people. To boost your vitamin D intake during the dark winter months, if you're over age 50, take a daily vitamin that contains at least 400 IU (international units) of vitamin D. If you're over age 70, you need at least 600 IU.

Flu. The flu is another culprit responsible for the winter surge in heart attacks. A flu infection can increase blood pressure, stir up white blood cell activity and change C-reactive protein and fibrinogen levels in the blood- all bad news for your heart. Get an annual flu shot (see www.flucliniclocator.org). It can cut your heart attack risk in half.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to "The NBC Today Show" and author of The Savvy Senior books.

The Gazette does not endorse the contents of The Savvy Senior. Check with professionals about the contents of this column.

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