Minimize risks with simple solutions such as preventing overexertion and preparing for cold temperatures.
As temperatures start to fall, your risk of a heart attack begins to climb. “Cold weather sometimes creates a perfect storm of risk factors for cardiovascular problems,” says Dr. Randall Zusman, a cardiologist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
Many of these risks stem from what Dr. Zusman calls a “mismatch between supply and demand.” Cold weather can decrease the supply of oxygen-rich blood to your heart muscle. And it can put you in situations that force your heart to work harder; as a result, your heart demands more oxygen-rich blood. Such a mismatch-a smaller supply of oxygen to the heart coupled with a greater demand for oxygen by the heart-sets you up for a heart attack.
Below, we summarize some of the many situations that can lead to heart attack during the colder months-and how to minimize them.
Winter sometimes causes us to overexert. We walk briskly against a strong wind, shovel the walk, push a car out of the snow. Exertion increases the heart’s demand for oxygen. “If there’s a blockage in a heart artery that reduces blood flow to the heart muscle, supply may not be sufficient to meet the demand,” says Dr. Zusman. Many of us have blockages we don’t know about.
Solution: “Be especially careful about exerting yourself outdoors in winter. Pushing an inch of snow is one thing, but shoveling heavy, wet, deep snowfall is very risky. I encourage my patients to avoid doing so, especially if they have risk factors for heart disease,” says Dr. Zusman. Risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, family history, and obesity. Dr. Zusman urges you to have someone else shovel snow for you.
Risk: Cold exposure
When your body is suddenly exposed to icy temperatures, your blood vessels clamp down.
Solution: “Don’t head out the door half-dressed. Put on your coat, hat, and gloves in advance,” says Dr. Zusman.
While it’s important to dress warmly in cold weather, it’s also important to avoid getting overheated—for example, from physical activity. If you get overheated, your body will need to release the heat. Too much warm clothing may prevent that, causing blood vessels to dilate, which can dramatically lower blood pressure. “When blood pressure drops, it can reduce the heart’s blood supply, possibly leading to a heart attack,” says Dr. Zusman.
Solution: Dress in layers. If you start to sweat, remove a layer until you cool down, then replace the layer. Better yet, go inside and take a break.
A bout of seasonal flu can trigger a heart attack in people already at risk for heart disease. The flu causes a fever, which makes your heart beat faster (raising its demand for oxygen). The flu also can cause dehydration, which can reduce your blood pressure (lowering the heart’s supply of oxygen). “Again, when demand exceeds supply, it may lead to a heart attack,” says Dr. Zusman.
Solution: Try to avoid getting the flu by washing your hands often with soap and water and getting a flu shot. If you do get flu symptoms, such as fever, cough, or body aches, call your doctor and take antiviral medication if it’s prescribed. Avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of fluids or eating water-rich foods such as fruit or soup.
Risk: Missed prescriptions
Snowy or icy weather can keep you from following through on your doctor visits or getting your prescriptions filled on time. “If you haven’t had your medications, and blood pressure is not adequately controlled, it can increase heart attack risk,” says Dr. Zusman.
Solution: In winter months, it’s best to have a supply of medication large enough so that you won’t run out if there’s rough weather. “Not waiting until the last minute to fill prescriptions is another wise move, especially if weather can make transportation a problem,” says Dr. Zusman.
Don’t give in to risky winter health habits
Wintertime can have a bad influence on your good health habits. The weather may prevent you from exercising regularly. Holiday parties may lead you to consume more calories, more “bad” fats, more salty food, and excessive alcohol.
Keep healthy habits intact with a few winter strategies: