You might be enjoying the cooler air as the seasons change. But winter weather has a downside: It can raise your risk for heart problems.
A new study in the journal JAMA Cardiology found that there’s a big jump in heart attacks when the forecast includes cold temperatures, a strong wind, low sunlight, and low pressure in the atmosphere. They found that heart attack rates increase most when the temperature dips below freezing.
It’s not exactly clear why hearts are at risk for trouble during colder weather. But the study’s authors say there are several possible reasons.
For one thing, the winter months are also when people have more colds and flu. A recent study showed that the risk of a heart attack was significantly higher in the first 7 days after an infection, such as flu or pneumonia (infection in the lungs).
Cold weather activities like shoveling snow may also trigger heart attacks that can be deadly. That’s why doctors instruct patients with known heart disease not to shovel snow at all. For others, who have risk factors, breathing cold air into the windpipe near your heart and tightening up your muscles to lift heavy snow (increasing blood pressure) can bea dangerous combination.
The cold air alone can raise blood pressure, slow down the flow of blood to the heart, and help blood clots form. Blood clots can cut off blood flow to parts of the heart muscle or brain, causing a heart attack or stroke. Patients with a history of heart disease (angina chest pain, bypass surgery, heart attack, stent, or angioplasty) are most at risk.
To prevent heart problems that come in the winter months, build up your body’s defenses against colds, flu, and other infections with these measures:
- Get a flu shot every year.
- If you are aged 65 or over, ask for a vaccine for pneumonia.
- Wash your hands often. Plain soap and water will do the trick.
- Get at least 7-8 hours of sleep a night. Research shows people who get enough sleep have fewer colds.
- Don’t smoke.
- Exercise regularly.
If you need to dig out after a snowfall, protect yourself with these steps:
- Ask a neighbor or hire someone to help, if you are really out of shape or have heart disease risk factors, especially if you have a history of heart attack or chest pain (angina).
- Warm up before you start any activity.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a scarf to help warm the temperature of the air you breathe.
- Don’t try to lift heavy loads. Shovel more small loads instead…better yet, sweep small amounts of snow off that sidewalk frequently so lifting isn’t needed.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Take breaks.
Know the signs of heart attack and call 911 if you have any of these. The most common symptoms are:
- Chest pain
- Pain in one or both arms
- Pain in the back, shoulders, neck, jaw, or upper part of the stomach (which may be mistaken for indigestion)
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea and vomiting
If you’re not sure how healthy your heart is to start with, ask your doctor about special tests that can help you and your doctor understand your risk. Visit KnowYourRisk.com for more information.
By knowing your risk factors and taking the right precautions, you can stay healthy and keep your heart strong—whatever season it is!
This information is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice.