How does cold weather affect the heart?
The winter months are often associated with snow and cold weather, but what most people don’t realize is that significant drops in temperature, commonly seen during colder months of the year, not only affects your comfort but also can affect heart health.
Staying outdoors for prolonged periods without adequate protection against the cold can lead to a condition called hypothermia. This condition occurs when body temperature falls below 35C or 95F as a result of your body not being able to produce enough energy to keep its internal temperature high enough. Without adequate treatment, sufferers can exhibit mental confusion, slowed reactions, slivering, sleepiness, or even die. Those with coronary heart disease often experience chest pain or discomfort due to cardiac causes (angina pectoris) when they are in cold weather.
To help stay warm, it is recommended to wear layers of clothing when heading out in cold weather. This allows for air to become trapped between the layers, forming a protective insulation. It is also recommended to always wear a hat and scarf as these areas of the body can lose the greatest amount of body heat.
Heart attack and cardiac death risk tends to raise during winter holiday season. The researchers are not sure why end-of-the-year festivities are associated with an influx of heart attack cases, but they offer a number of possible explanations for this phenomenon. For example, during this time of year, people tend to eat differently, increase their alcohol consumption, get more stressed, run in to a financial strain, do more travelling and entertaining, experience respiratory problems due to wood burning, and neglect the signs and symptoms of a heart attack.
Volunteer at the American Heart Association (AHA), Jorge Plutzky explained, “The progression of heart disease doesn’t happen overnight, so an uptick in cardiac death during the holidays is actually more the acute manifestations of the disease. Factors like cold weather, stress, and dietary indiscretion can contribute to a chain of events leading to more stress on the heart. A cardiac event might be triggered because the heart is working harder.”
You can reduce your risk of experiencing a heart attack during the holidays by cutting out sugary or processed foods, moderating your alcohol consumption, reducing your stress levels as much as possible, and making time for yourself instead of spreading yourself too thin jumping from one social gathering to another.
Dr. Plutzky added, “Make sure the holidays don’t get in the way of taking your medicines and continuing to be attentive to a healthy diet. But even when the holidays are passed, these things continue to be issues all year long because heart disease remains a leading threat to America’s health.”
The AHA also has helpful tips for heart attack survivors for reducing their risk of another cardiac event. These tips include taking medication as directed, attending a follow-up appointment with your doctor, completing a cardiac rehabilitation program, managing your risk factors, and developing a strong support system.
Winter heart attack risks and tips to avoid
Having a preexisting heart condition can put you at increased risk for severe heart problems. Cold weather and heart disease often do not mix well, but this doesn’t mean you have to miss out on winter fun. By being aware of the following tips and heart risks that cold weather exposes you to, you can make better decisions on how to spend these colder months.
Cold weather can narrow blood vessels: This is a response of the body in an attempt to retain heat, but unfortunately, this may also put more stress on the heart and increase blood pressure and heart rate. It is recommended to stay indoors during extremely cold weather.
Cold air can cause chest pain: This may happen in some individuals. Wearing a scarf can help mitigate this as it can warm up the air before you breathe it.
Beware of the flu: The colder months often bring with it the flu and other sicknesses. It is recommended to get the flu shot every year to help reduce the chances of contracting the illness, as having the flu increases your risk of a heart attack.
Like with most things in life, preparation is key to help prevent potentially negative consequences. Staying warm and being conscious of your health when attempting to brave the cold weather that winter throws at you will be your first line of defense in keeping you healthy. The following are some winter heart health tips to keep you safe during these colder months.
Stay indoors: There is no shame in avoiding the outside world when temperatures drop, as your heart health is of greater concern. It is recommended to keep the temperature of your home at least 18°C (65°F) and use a hot water bottle or an electric blanket when necessary. You can even be active indoors by moving around at least once an hour to avoid prolonged sitting.
Hot meals: By consuming hot meal and drinks, you give your body the energy it needs while simultaneously warming it up.
Wearing layers: Perhaps the most effective method for staying warm outdoors, as it can keep you much warmer than by simply having one thick layer. Wearing a hat and scarf is also recommended.
Learn the heart attack warning signs: This is commonly known as having chest pain, arm weakness, face drooping, and speech difficulties. However, calling 911 for emergency care during a heart attack will be your best chance of survival.
While colder temperatures may discourage those with a heart condition from going outdoors, this can put a significant damper on physical activity levels. However, being physically active helps improve heart health, which makes staying indoors counterproductive. It is recommended to speak with your doctor about appropriate activity levels for your own personal situation and to inquire about the best ways to say heart health in the winter months.
Related: Why you should pay more attention to your heart in the winter