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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.

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.

"Start slow," he cautions. "The cardiovascular system can adapt to slow and progressive changes, but it has a much more difficult time adapting to sudden changes."

ASHI's Leahy agrees. "When you go to shovel snow, do it for just 15 minutes at a clip and then let the body recuperate," she says. "Don't overdo it, especially if you are not used to any exercise."

Before you go out, check your pulse rate, she says. Here's how: "Count it out for 30 seconds, multiply it by two, and go out and shovel," she says. Your pulse will quicken when shoveling. "Go back inside after 15 minutes and then return when your pulse is back to normal."

But "don't go inside and have a cup of coffee or smoke a cigarette when you warm up because caffeine and nicotine just put that much more burden on the heart."

Exercisers, Revelers Are Also at Increased Risk

It's not just shovelers who run the risk of taxing their heart in the winter. Every Jan. 1, millions of people join gyms as part of their New Year's resolution to get in shape -- and many may overexert themselves too soon.

"There is no question that exercise is good, but exercise that the body is not prepared to handle is not good," UCLA's Watson says. "Start an exercise regimen under the supervision of your doctor if you have heart disease risk factors, and even if you don't, start slow." Beginning your new routine gradually is not only less taxing on your body, but it's also is easier to stick to. And talk to your doctor about what your heart disease risk factors are.

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