This early cold snap in November may be interesting to meteorologists, an inconvenience to anyone required to spend time outdoors and finally a reason to pull out your big winter coat. However, to the 49 percent of Americans at risk for heart disease and those already diagnosed, this weather is nothing to take lightly. Statistics show winter is a high-risk time for heart attacks. We tend to stay indoors more, exercise less and eat a little more. All of this adds up to higher blood pressure, higher cholesterol and even larger waistlines in the winter months compared to the rest of the year – a seasonal recipe for heart disease. However, there are steps you can take to help reduce your risk and protect your heart health in cold weather.
First, let’s talk about what is behind all of this. It starts with how colder temperatures affect our body and circulation. Cold air causes our arteries to tighten, which restricts blood flow to the heart and increases our blood pressure. It also means less oxygen travels to the heart, which is already working heard to keep the rest of the body warm. On cold days the heart requires more oxygen than it would need on a warmer day. Heart rate increases and this scenario sets up the conditions for a heart attack.
Add on top of this flu and cold season. When we are sick with the flu or a terrible cold, inflammation results. Unfortunately, inflammation can also trigger a heart attack by making the plaque in our arteries more likely to dislodge and block an artery – cutting off blood flow to the heart. This is another reason it is important to get a flu shot, especially if you have heart disease or a main risk factor for heart disease. It is also the reason people who live in warmer climates experience the same spike in heart attack risk during winter.
Reducing Your Cold Weather Heart Disease Risk
Realizing the added burden placed on your heart during winter, remember you should not approach daily activities or exercise as you normally would the rest of the year. Take it easy and that starts when you first wake up. Give yourself a few extra minutes to get out of bed and started with your morning activities. If you normally exercise in the morning, health care providers recommend that you cut back on the duration and intensity of the workout. If you need to head out to clear the sidewalk or driveway of any ice or snow, do so in small time increments and come inside to take breaks. Give your body temperature some time to recuperate. However, during those breaks avoid that hot cup of coffee or even a cigarette, as caffeine and nicotine can further aggravate the heart.
Holiday parties, gatherings and just more time spent inside means we are typically eating, drinking and indulging more in the winter. It is typical to put on a few holiday pounds, but all of that puts added pressure on our cardiovascular system. Compounded with family and financial stressors of the season and the increased risk for depression and anxiety, we need to remember how this change impacts our heart.
To help reduce your risk of suffering a winter heart attack, follow these suggestions:
-Continue regular exercise, but at reduced duration and intensity.
-It is OK to indulge in holiday treats, but try to keep most meals nutritionally balanced.
-Do not overschedule yourself every evening and weekend with holiday parties and events to help reduce stress.
-Try to stay on your normal sleep schedule – going to bed and waking about the same time daily.
-Avoid exposure to people who are sick and continue to wash your hands with warm water and soap several times a day.
-Stay up to date on vaccines, including the flu vaccine.
-Talk with your health care provider about any additional steps you can take if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or other risk factor for heart disease.
To learn more about cardiovascular services available at Hillcrest Claremore with Oklahoma Heart Institute, click here.