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How Winter Woes Can Wreak Havoc on Your Heart

With the holiday season rapidly approaching, you may find yourself more prone to bouts of chest tightness and racing heart rates.

The easy explanation for these feelings is stress. After all, from November's massive family feast, until December's celebratory blitz, life can seem like an endless series of prepping, planning, eating and visiting.

If you're a family caregiver, these obligations pile right on top of the already full list of things you have to do to take care of your loved one. It's enough to give even the calmest and most-organized person heart palpitations.

Whatever their cause, heart symptoms should never be taken lightly—especially during the winter months.

According to Cynthia Thaik, M.D., a cardiologist and member of the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association, research has shown that cardiovascular deaths spike by about 18 percent as the days shorten and the weather cools.

Why do cardiovascular concerns increase in winter?

Cold weather, being indoors more often, stress, lack of vitamin D and changes in the daylight to nighttime ratio all play a role in increasing a person's overall risk of cardiac problems during the winter, says Thaik.

There's also something about the holiday season that seems to be hard on the heart—Christmas and New Year's top the list of dangerous days for cardiovascular problems and death.

And, according to recent research, it doesn't seem to matter whether you live in icy Wisconsin, or sunny Florida—the winter months can still take a toll on your ticker.

Researchers from the University of New Mexico discovered that people who lived in Texas, Georgia, Arizona and Los Angeles experienced the same jump in heart-death risk as those residing in cooler states, such as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

6 strategies for staving off a winter coronary

There are things you and your loved one can do to shelter your heart against winters' dangerous effects:

  1. Bundle up: Despite the findings of the University of New Mexico study, Thaik says it's still important to keep warm during the winter months because temperature does have an effect on the cardiovascular system. Cold weather can cause blood vessels to constrict, blood pressure to elevate and blood to become more prone to clotting, according to Neal Kleiman, M.D., cardiologist at the Methodist DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center in Houston.
  2. Don't fall off the wagon: Bitter weather and savory comfort foods make for an unhealthy combination—especially during the holiday season. While it's okay to indulge a bit during celebrations, overall Thaik urges people to, "keep good habits going during the wintertime." This means sticking to a regular exercise routine and eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  3. Don't forgo meds: Just as maintaining a healthy diet and exercise plan is important in the winter, so too is sticking to any existing medication regimen you may have. Kleiman urges people not to "slack off on their medications," and other health maintenance habits.
  4. Get happy: Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that strikes during the winter months. Shorter, cooler days spent inside can cause a person to become lethargic, hungry and uninterested. As with any type of depression, people suffering from SAD may be less likely to practice healthy behaviors, such as engaging in regular physical activity and eating a well-balanced diet. Thaik says it's important to avoid getting into this depressive cycle. Make sure you take time to do things that lift up your mood, such as going for a walk, or spending time with your family (if doing so doesn't stress you out).
  5. Don't be an early bird: According to Thaik, one of the unrecognized side effects of fewer daylight hours in the winter is that people tend to try and start their days earlier. But, because blood pressure naturally spikes in the morning, these early birds could be putting themselves at greater risk for a heart attack. She suggests keeping early morning activities to a minimum during the winter months. "The heart likes to take time and warm up," she says, "take things gradually in the morning."
  6. Get a flu shot: "Your immune system weakens in the winter," says Thaik, "getting the flu leads to increased inflammation and possibly pneumonia, both of which have a negative impact on your cardiovascular risk. Recent research has shown that getting a flu shot could reduce a person's risk for a major cardiac event (i.e. stroke, heart attack, heart failure, or cardiac death) by as much as 50 percent.
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