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.
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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