The holiday season -- those sometimes intense weeks that begin around Thanksgiving and stretch to New Year's Day and beyond -- can be a time of good cheer, brightly lit parties brimming with food and drink, the pleasure of family reunions, and feelings of generosity and peace. It can also be a lonely time or a stressful one, a season of eating, drinking or spending too much. These downsides, along with other factors, contribute to the spike in heart disease deaths during the holidays.
Striking a balance between celebration and health can be a challenge for anyone. Heart disease complicates matters a bit. With some advance planning and common sense, you and your heart can come out the other side of the holidays no worse for wear and maybe even better.
What Is It About Winter? A handful of small studies have hinted that death has its season, and that the season is winter. Researchers in San Diego, Calif., and Boston, Mass., took this work a giant step further, thanks to a national database with detailed information on the 53 million deaths that occurred in the United States between 1973 and 2001. The researchers tallied up how many people died on each day of these years, from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, and graphed the results.
Deaths from heart disease gradually climbed from July to January, with a sharp spike between Christmas and New Year's Day, then fell again. What is it about the holiday season that isn't conducive to good health, or at least to continued life? Researchers have floated a number of possibilities:
Temperature. Cold temperatures can increase blood pressure and make blood more likely to form artery-blocking clots. Yet the winter increase in heart attacks and heart-related deaths has been seen even in southern California.
Short days, long nights. Dwindling daylight alters levels of hormones such as cortisol, melatonin and vasopressin, each of which can affect the heart and mood.
Respiratory disease. Coughs, colds and the flu are more common during winter than summer. These can cause extra trouble for people with heart failure and other forms of heart disease.
Holiday stress. Traveling to family get-togethers, buying gifts and preparing to host a holiday party can be as stressful for some people as they are enjoyable for others. Stress can fire up chest pain (angina) and trigger heart attacks.
Changes in diet and alcohol intake. Food and drink are the centerpieces of many holiday gatherings, one reason why so many people gain weight between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. Salty snacks and foods are a common reason for heart failure flare-ups during the holidays. Eating too much or too fast can generate heartburn, which can feel like a heart attack and sends many people to the emergency room each season. Alcohol is a double-edged sword; over the long run, a drink a day can reduce cardiac risk, but binge drinking can lead to high blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythms.
Medication lapses. The hustle and bustle of the holiday season can throw medication schedules out of whack. Missing a dose or two of most medications isn't a big deal; taking an extended medication holiday can be trouble, especially for people with diabetes, heart rhythm problems or heart failure.
Emergency Room Visits. “Patients admitted to Centennial Medical Center’s Emergency Department are on the average seen by a physician in 25 minutes or less,” said Dr. David Arai, Medical Director of Centennial’s Emergency Department. The average time that hospital emergency rooms patients wait to see a doctor has grown from about 38 minutes to almost an hour over the past decade, according to new federal statistics released by the CDC in August.
Delay in seeking medical care. No one wants to "ruin" Christmas or New Year's Day with a trip to an urgent care center or emergency room. Yet if you procrastinate in seeking care for chest pain or other warning signs of a heart attack, stroke or worsening heart failure, you could get to the hospital after your heart or brain has suffered damage that could have been prevented with earlier attention.
“Because the medical management of chest pain is critical, Centennial Medical Center has demonstrated its commitment to quality patient care by meeting or exceeding a wide set of stringent criteria and on-site evaluations by a review team from the Society of Chest Pain Centers,” said Dr. Canales, internal medicine physician at Centennial. Centennial received full accreditation status from the Accreditation Review Committee on March 2, 2007.
Travel. In the study looking at deaths between 1973 and 2001, there were only two years without a Christmas/New Year's increase in heart disease deaths: 1973, the year of the OPEC oil embargo, and 1981, a recession year. Travel during these two holiday seasons was dramatically curtailed, which may have reduced stress, improved medication taking, or prevented some delays in seeking medical attention.