Your heart may leap with delight at the electronic gizmo or emerald bracelet
that you’ve just unwrapped from under the Christmas tree. But you can’t say the
same for that nasty holiday surprise known as the “Merry Christmas coronary” or
“Happy Hanukkah heart attack.”
For many years, researchers have been intrigued by a disturbing pattern:
Deadly heart attacks increase during the winter holiday season. One study even
found distinct spikes around Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The unexpected death of NBC Meet the Press host Tim Russert in June shocked many Americans, who suddenly saw themselves at risk for heart trouble. Heart-healthy diets gained traction in 2008, along with tips for recognizing symptoms of heart disease.
Those topics are among the most viewed heart-related stories on WebMD for 2008.
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“We certainly know that there are certain risk factors for coronary artery
disease. There’s obviously smoking, hypertension, dyslipidemia [high
cholesterol], diabetes, lack of exercise, and age,” says Robert A. Kloner, MD,
PhD, a researcher at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles and a professor at
the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.
“But we’re also learning that there are certain triggers for cardiovascular
events,” he adds, “including time of the year and seasons. If we can get a true
handle on the seasonal variation, we could knock down death from coronary
Heart Attack Weather?
Coronary artery disease stems from atherosclerosis, a condition in which
fatty plaques narrow the arteries to the heart. When a plaque ruptures, it can
trigger a blood clot that leads to a heart attack.
In a national 2004 study published in Circulation, researchers at the
University of California, San Diego, and Tufts University School of Medicine
examined 53 million U.S. death certificates from 1973 to 2001. They discovered
an overall increase of 5% more heart-related deaths during the holiday season.
When researchers looked at individual years, they found varying increases in
cardiac deaths for every holiday period they studied, except two.
Doctors have long known that cold weather is hard on the heart. Blood
vessels constrict, which raises blood pressure. Blood also clots more readily.
Frigid temperatures increase strain on the heart, and too much physical
exertion can worsen the burden and trigger a heart attack. For example, doctors
have treated many patients whose heart attacks followed strenuous snow
Holiday Heart Attack Triggers
But cold extremes don’t really explain why fatal heart attacks peak on
Christmas and New Year’s Day, especially among the most rapidly stricken
patients. According to the Circulation study, “The number of cardiac
deaths is higher on Dec. 25 than on any other day of the year, second highest
on Dec. 26, and third highest on Jan. 1.”
Adding to the mystery, why do holiday heart attacks shoot up consistently
across the country, even in balmy climes such as Los Angeles, where winter
weather stays mild and no one ever wields a snow shovel?
In Kloner’s own research, he found one-third more coronary artery disease
deaths in December and January than in June through September during a 12-year
period in Los Angeles County.