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Chest Pains, Heart Attacks Increase Around Holidays


Perhaps you have heard the phrases “Happy New Year heart attack” or “Merry Chest Pains,” or even “Merry Christmas coronary.” That’s because one of the things that the holiday season brings besides gifts and lots of rich food is an increase in the number of deadly heart attacks and episodes of chest pain.

According to a national study published in Circulation, researchers at Tufts University School of Medicine and the University of California at San Diego found that there are 5 percent more deaths related to the heart during the holidays. The three biggest days of the year for heart attacks are December 25, December 26, and New Year’s Day.

Robert A. Kloner, MD, PhD, a researcher at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles and a professor at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California names smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes, age, a lack of exercise, and high blood pressure as risk factors for coronary artery disease and heart attack. However, he also notes that “we’re also learning that there are certain triggers for cardiovascular events, including time of the year and seasons.”

In the study published in Circulation, the researchers evaluated 53 million US death certificates from 1973 to 2001. They found an overall increase of 5 percent more heart-related deaths during the holidays. More specifically, the number of cardiac deaths is higher on Christmas day than on any other day of the year, followed by December 26 and January 1. Why?

Researchers speculated that cold weather may be a factor, as it is well known that exposure to cold winter temperatures cause blood vessels to constrict, which raises blood pressure. Blood also clots more easily when the weather is cold, and heart attacks are also associated with snow shoveling.

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But the researchers found that heart attacks also increased during the holidays in warm weather areas such as Los Angeles. In fact, the investigators found that one-third more coronary artery disease deaths occurred in December and January than in June through September in Los Angeles county. So cold weather is not the main reason for the increase in heart attacks and chest pain during the holidays.

The researchers speculated that people may put off getting treatment for chest pain they experience during Christmas and New Year’s because they don’t want to disrupt their parties and festivities. Kloner notes that “People just tend to put off seeking medical help during the holidays. They tend to wait till afterwards, which I think is a mistake.” Another reason may be that many people travel during the holidays and put off seeking help.

The reasons why people experience more chest pain and heart attacks around the holidays is likely associated with their eating, drinking, and exercise habits. During the holidays, many people eat too much and drink more alcohol than they do during other times of the year, and also tend to neglect their exercise routines.

During a recent interview with Dr. Mehmet Oz on ABC’s Good Morning America, Dr. Oz gave several tips for how to prevent heart attack during the holidays. One, limit alcohol consumption, and never have two drinks in a row. Between alcoholic beverages, drink a glass of water. Two, avoid high-fat foods, and never have food in both hands, as this tends to make you over eat. Three, stay away from a burning fireplace. Particulates from the fire can get into your lungs and trigger a blood clot. Four, know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. If you think you are having a heart attack, call 911 and chew an aspirin. (Tip: Keep a supply of chewable aspirin with you.)

Indications of a heart attack include chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, indigestion, chest discomfort, discomfort or pain in the arms, neck, back, or stomach, and dizziness. Women are more likely to experience indigestion while men are more likely to have chest pain, but these are not always true. Therefore, if you experience any of these symptoms during the holidays—or any day—and believe you are having a heart attack, seek immediate medical attention.

ABC’s Good Morning America, Dec. 14, 2009
Kloner RA. Circulation 2004 Dec 21; 110(25): 3744-45