It's no old wives' tale that heart attacks increase during the winter months. The difference between summer and winter in terms of heart attack incidence is vast. In fact, there is a 50 percent increase in heart attacks during the winter months.
The reason isn't entirely clear. Many assume that it's the cold weather. The image that comes to mind is often the middle-aged, overweight man having a heart attack while shoveling the snow, but research shows that this dramatic increase happens even in locations that don't have cold winters.
Even in areas that receive no snow and minimal, if any, cold weather, heart attack and heart attack death rates are similarly increased.
This rise in heart attacks certainly corresponds with cold and flu season, and an increased transmission of these diseases. The subsequent strain they can cause on the heart could precipitate this rise in heart attacks. This is one area where we can work to prevent heart attacks through the use of a simple flu shot. Even though as physicians it's something that we always recommend, we continue to emphasize the flu vaccine especially for those at risk of a heart attack.
Symptoms of heart disease were first recorded two centuries ago as "pain in the chest while walking up hill in the cold wind." This certainly adds to the association of cold weather with poor heart health. And while the cold may not cause a heart attack, it can certainly exacerbate the symptoms of heart disease.
If you know that you have heart disease, or if you're not in great health overall, always be sure to avoid cold temperatures. Bundle up in the winter months and try to limit breathing in cold air.
If you're poorly conditioned, and rarely exercise, it's not a good idea to make your first exercise of the year shoveling a driveway full of snow in freezing temperatures. Consider your health and pay someone in better shape to do it for you. Of course, if you're reasonably healthy and exercising regularly then shoveling the snow will likely not cause any adverse health effects — just make sure to dress appropriately for the weather, drink plenty of water and take frequent breaks.
The increase in heart attacks could also be in line with the strong pattern of weight gain during winter months. As the weather changes, we tend to exercise less, eat more and not take the best care of our bodies — which can result in the addition of a few winter pounds. While most of this weight is generally lost in the summer months, not all of it is. If you gain a pound or two over the course of a decade, you'll gain 15-20 pounds. That extra weight puts an unnecessary strain on your heart. When coupled with other modifiable risk factors and family history, weight gain can increase your risk for a heart attack.
Even when it's cold or dreary, it's important to maintain good health throughout the winter months. It might not be the easiest route, but this is the key to long-term health and wellness.
Dr. Jonathan Waltman is an interventional cardiologist with KentuckyOne Cardiology Associates