Looking closer at the spike in holiday heart attacks
If Christmas past is any indication, the statistics for holiday heart attacks are scarier than Ebenezer Scrooge.
An earlier study of U.S. data from the years 1973 to 2001 showed that deaths due to heart attacks were highest on Dec. 25, followed by Dec. 26 and Jan. 1. The 2004 study, published in the journal Circulation, cited an overall 5 percent increase during the holiday season, and has led to speculation over the potential causes.
One factor may simply be cold weather, which can cause blood vessels to constrict and otherwise put extra strain on the heart. Another possible factor is the change in routines and environments that people face when traveling, as well as the rush of events. And then there’s the holiday food.
Dr. William D. Yarbrough, Trident Health’s medical director for cardiovascular services, says tempting seasonal favorites, for example, ham, seasoned turkey and stuffing, may lead people to consume more sodium than usual. That can cause immediate trouble for those who have heart failure or high blood pressure.
Another culprit could be the triggers of emotional stress sometimes brought on by the holidays, if not from interactions with relatives, then the heightened sadness felt by some who have lost loved ones. In more recent years, doctors have pinpointed a condition called “broken heart syndrome,” in which severe stress causes the heart muscle to weaken with symptoms similar to a heart attack. The condition can be life threatening, though most make a complete recovery. Dr. Yarbrough has diagnosed 16 cases, including one patient who lost a spouse and another who lost a child. It is not necessarily related to the holidays but helps show how emotions can impact the physiology of the heart. “What we do know is people who have it are in a severe emotional, stressful situation.”
Finally, some wonder whether a contributing factor in the number of fatal heart attacks during the holidays might be a reluctance to recognize or act on warning signs because of the disruption it could cause to special plans. But deterring a trip to the hospital can be dangerous when heart problems crop up.
“If you are having severe chest pains, shortness of breath or other symptoms of a heart attack, then the correct thing to do is call 911 and have an ambulance come get you,” says Dr. Yarbrough.
Emergency responders can start treatment for heart attack and cardiac arrest as soon as they arrive while members of the hospital’s cardiac catheterization team prepare for the patient’s arrival, when they can re-open the clogged artery, often by inserting a small “balloon.” Door-to-balloon (D2B) times are measured from the moment the patient is admitted to the hospital to the time blood flow has been restored. Trident Health’s average D2B times are currently around 62 minutes – much faster than the national standard of 90 minutes.
Heart attack symptoms
If you are having a heart attack, you might experience one or more of these symptoms, but not necessarily all of them.
· Chest discomfort, especially in the center of the chest
· Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
· Shortness of breath
· Cold sweat
· Unusual fatigue