For many years now, we’ve known that winter is a peak season for heart attacks. In fact, studies have shown that up to 53% more heart attacks take place in winter than in summer and the fatality rate is in winter is up to 36% higher as well. Thanks to the efforts of Health Canada and organizations like the Heart & Stroke Foundation, we’re all that much more aware of the risk factors for a heart attack and what we can do to help reduce our risk. However, given the dramatic nature of this spike and the fact that we still have many weeks of winter left, you might be wondering what it is about winter that makes a heart attack so much more likely and so much more likely to be fatal and what, if anything, you can do to reduce your risk. If so, and in honour of Heart Health month, here are some answers:
- IT’S COLDER IN WINTER: Okay, that sounds like a statement of the obvious but there are specific ways that the cold affects our bodies which increases our risk of having a heart attack. First, cold temperatures can lead to an increase in blood pressure and in levels of certain proteins which can lead to an increased risk of blood clots. Also, when it’s cold, our heart needs to work that much harder to maintain a healthy body temperature. If our system is already weakened, this can result in a tightening of the arteries, restricted blood flow and reduced oxygen levels. All of which increases the likelihood of a heart attack. Not surprisingly, it’s the elderly and those with pre-existing heart conditions that are most at risk from the cold. To minimize the risk, always dress warmly (use layers) and try to avoid the extreme cold whenever possible.
- THERE’S LESS SUNLIGHT: Because there are fewer daylight hours in winter, many of us tend to get less sun which can lead to hormonal changes that make a cardiovascular event more likely. Less sunlight can also lead to a vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D increases the production of natural anti-inflammatory cytokines, inhibits vascular smooth muscle growth and leads to the suppression of vascular calcification; all of which helps our heart function properly and reduces our risk of heart attack. In other words, reduced vitamin D means an increased risk of heart attack. In fact, one clinical study found that people with low vitamin D levels had a 378 percent greater risk of dying from a heart related condition. If you think you might not be getting enough sunlight/vitamin D, consider visiting your doctor to get tested and, if needed, start taking a vitamin D supplement.
- THE WINTER SEASON IS FLU SEASON: The fact that winter is flu season can also make a heart attack more likely. The flu causes inflammation and this inflammation, on its own, can trigger a heart attack. Even if inflammation doesn’t cause a heart attack directly, it can make the plaque on our arteries less stable, causing it to dislodge and block our arteries, which, in turn, can cause a heart attack. As above, it’s the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions that are most at risk. To reduce the risk, consider getting a flu shot. This can decrease the likelihood of getting the flu and therefore the chances of a heart attack.
- WINTER MAINTENANCE CAN BE TOO DEMANDING: Shovelling snow causes a surprising number of heart attacks each year; particularly among those whose bodies aren’t accustomed to such intense exertion (whether due to age, a pre-existing medical condition or a generally sedentary lifestyle). To help reduce your risk, try not to shovel first thing in the morning (this is when our blood pressure is naturally elevated) and when you do shovel, start slow and take your time. Try shoveling for 10 to 15 minutes and then letting your body recover before starting up again. While it will likely take more time, it could also save your life!
While the risk of experiencing a fatal heart attack is greater in winter than at any other time of year, particularly for the elderly and those with a pre-existing heart condition, the good news is that this risk can be managed with just a few simple precautions. If you’d like to know more about reducing your risk factors for a heart attack, simply drop by or give us a call. Remember, at Physiomed, Healthier Starts Here.