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Heart Disease Health Center

Preventing Winter Heart Attacks

Winter is high time for heart attacks. Before you go out to shovel snow or start your new exercise routine, learn about your personal heart attack risk.
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The Plot Thickens

But that's not all that's going on. Cold temperatures cause arteries to tighten, restricting blood flow and reducing the oxygen supply to the heart, all of which can set the stage for a heart attack.

"In cold weather, there is more oxygen demand by the heart because it is working harder to do the work and maintain body heat," Glasser says.

Glasser says studies have shown that heart attacks and complications related to heart disease occur more frequently in the morning hours.

Research suggests that the early-morning rise in blood pressure, or "a.m. surge," that occurs in most people may dramatically increase the risk of having a heart attack or stroke. "In the winter, people tend to exert themselves or do yard work in the morning because it gets dark earlier," he tells WebMD.

"This shift of activities to morning hours adds to the normal circadian variation in mornings --further increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and the hormones that lower the threshold for a cardiovascular event," he says.

Risk Flies South With the Snowbirds

But this increase is not limited to the cold climate. In fact, snowbirds, too, are at an increased risk even when they head to warmer climates to avoid the cold. Increases in winter heart attacks have been documented in warmer climates such as in Florida and Southern California.

"In California, we still have the same spike in heart attacks," says Karol Watson, MD, PhD, co-director of preventive cardiology at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles (UCLA). The reason? Flu season, she says. "We know that inflammation can trigger a heart attack and the flu causes inflammation." In turn, inflammation can make arterial plaque less stable, and they may dislodge, block arteries, and contribute to a heart attack.

But "a flu shot can lower the risk of heart attack," she says. People at high risk for the flu, including people older than 65 and those with heart disease risk factors, should make sure to get the shot.

Knowledge, Moderation Are Key

In terms of preventing a heart attack this winter, "knowledge is the greatest tool," Alabama's Glasser says. "Being aware is important, and if you are at risk for heart disease and have not been exerting yourself in the morning and want to switch to a.m. hours, cut back on the level and duration of the activity," he says.

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