The holidays are over, you’re done traveling, and you can finally kick back and relax a bit. That relaxation has to be great for your heart, right? Unfortunately, it’s actually become a well-understood fact that January, and winter in general, is the time of year you’re most likely to have a heart attack. This was recently reinforced by the one of the largest studies of its kind, which provided further insight into why this is the case. Luckily, being aware of these risks can keep you from worrying and help you enjoy your winter safely!

The 2018 Study

The first of these studies was published in the journal Cardiology and was conducted by an international team of doctors centered in Sweden. Using 15 years of data on more than 274,000 patients who suffered heart attacks in Sweden, researchers analyzed weather patterns in connection to heart attacks rates. The researchers analyzed the data for links between weather, the temperature, and instances of all types of heart attack. The study found that heart attack rates rose on days when the temperature was below freezing and dropped significantly as the temperature grew above 37.4 to 39.2 degrees Fahrenheit.

The study found strong evidence that heart attack rates were connected with temperature.

Furthermore, the study speculated on why heart attack rates may be influenced by temperature. Their findings corroborated something we discussed in “Why Snow Shoveling is so Dangerous” — that cold weather can cause a narrowing of the arties, leading to blockages that cause heart attacks.

Why are Heart Attacks More Common in January and Winter?

Beyond the cold weather, there are a few other potential reasons why heart attack rates may increase in winter. In fact, one 1999 study published in the journal Circulation found other non-weather reasons for this heart attack death spike. The study was conducted in Los Angeles County, where the weather is relatively mild compared to other regions of the United States in the winter. This eliminated the cold factor. Despite this, researchers still found a 33 percent increase in heart attack deaths in December and January. So, while weather may influence the heart attack rates, it’s only one of many factors.

Researchers still found a 33 percent increase in heart attack deaths in December and January, even after removing the cold as a factor.

Both the 1999 Circulation and 2018 Cariology studies agreed on this point. The researchers of the 2018 Cardiology study speculated that there may be link between eating and exercise habits during the winter that may influence heart attack rates — a belief shared by the Circulation study. The Cardiology study also noted the increased likelihood of respiratory illness like flu during the winter and research findings that show air pollution has led to changes in the structure of the heart can both influence heart attack rates.

Respiratory illness and air pollution can both influence heart attack rates.

The holidays may also influence the likelihood of heart attacks and how fatal they are. With the holidays come many stress factors. You’ve got travel, potentially awkward family interactions, and overeating, among many others. All these combine to create a few days — Christmas, the day after Christmas, and New Year’s Day — when there is a statistically significant spike in fatal heart attacks. Another factor influencing this stat is that people who are suffering a heart attack may be less likely to seek help, believing it could ruin the holiday. Don’t do this.

Finally, snow shoveling only really ever happens in the winter and is a pretty common heart attack risk. Snow shoveling can be very straining on your heart, especially if you’ve had previous heart issues or aren’t in great shape. When combined with cold weather, it creates a nasty mix of elements resulting in a high heart attack risk for seniors.

So, What Can You Do to Avoid a Heart Attack?

Regardless of the reasons for the heart attack spike, it’s important that you take the steps to prevent it from happening to you. Besides the regular ways to lessen your risk of heart disease like lowering your cholesterol, you can directly combat the seasonal risk factor.

For example, keep warm by wearing extra layers of clothes or by limiting your time outside. Take time to relax or even meditate to avoid holiday stress — as a bonus, you’ll enjoy the holidays more! Don’t forget to get your flu shot, and not just to prevent a heart attack, too. Finally, as tempting as it is, try to stick to your diet or at least eat healthier during the winter months and holiday dinner season.

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Most importantly, if you notice any of the symptoms of a heart attack, get help! Minutes can mean the difference between life and death, so your family will forgive you if you have to excuse yourself from the family gathering to go to the hospital.