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Does moving to a warm climate reduce heart disease risk?

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
heart health, cardiovascular disease, cold weather, Seasonal affective disorder

Now that the hotly-contested presidential election is behind us, winter is fast approaching. For residents of the northern portion of our nation, the change in seasons will be dramatic and signal that it is time to break out the snow blowers and other cold weather equipment. For those, living in areas such as Southern California, the mountains will receive a snow cap; however, many warm days will prevail along the coast. While their neighbors to the north are shoveling snow, Southern Californians will be enjoying a pleasant day at the beach. Not uncommonly, northern residents relocate—at least for the winter months - to warmer climes to escape the ice and snow.

Many assume that a warmer climate is beneficial to one’s health - including cardiovascular health; however, a new study has found that living in a temperate climate during the winter months does not improve heart health. Researchers affiliated with the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles presented their findings on November 7 at the at the American Heart Association scientific meeting, which runs from November 3 through November 7 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

The investigators analyzed 2005-2008 death certificate data from seven US regions with varying climates: Los Angeles County, Texas, Arizona, Georgia, western Washington State, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. They found that, in all areas, total deaths as well as deaths from heart attack, heart failure, cardiovascular disease and stroke rose by an average of 26-36% between the summer low and the winter peak. “We found this to be surprising,” noted lead author Dr. Bryan Schwartz. He added, “We thought colder climates with a colder winter might have a higher increase in the wintertime or a prolonged increase in the wintertime, but that’s not what we found.”

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The study was not designed to show why heart-related death rates rose across the board in the winter; however, Dr. Schwartz hypothesized that individuals may “acclimate to their local climate,” making the change between summer and winter temperatures more relevant than how low the temperature dips in winter. In addition, he noted that lifestyles tend to be less healthy in the wintertime. He explained, “Diet is not as good, people exercise less, they gain weight.” He added that less daylight is known to cause or worsen depression. In addition, he noted that higher rates of respiratory infections have also been shown to increase the risk of death from a heart-related issue, “which reinforces” guidelines for flu shots and pneumonia vaccines.

Take home message:
The results of this study are surprising because one would assume that cold weather would increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Dr. Schwartz noted that decreased daylight hours might be a factor. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a recognized cause of depression during winter months. Although daylight hours decrease throughout the United States during winter, the decrease is greatest near the Canadian border and significantly less near the Mexican border and Florida. Beyond cardiovascular disease, an increased risk of death occurs from slip and falls in northern regions. The inclement weather is also a factor in automobile accidents. All things considering, becoming a snowbird or relocating to a warmer climate has health benefits.

Reference: American Heart Association scientific meeting

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