Old Man Winter can be deadly. We all like to complain about the cold weather, the sidewalks that haven’t been cleared, and the need for cumbersome bulky layers of clothing and thick-soled boots. Some of us remember soldiering through five miles of high snow drifts to get to school (that tale never gets old). And when the holiday festivities are over, there’s a long stretch of those short, dark days to get through.
In fact, winter is the season when mortality rates boom. I’d like to make sure you beat the statistics and stay healthy.
The National Center for Health Statistics for 2001-2008 reports an average of 7,200 American deaths per day during the months of December, January, February and March, compared to the average of 6,400 who died daily during the rest of the year. In 2008, there were 108,500 “excess” deaths during the 122 days in the cold months.
The main culprit is heart disease. It’s the leading cause of death in North America, and the risk is at its highest in the winter months and lowest in the summer. Heart disease, let’s be clear, is not just a men’s disease. In the U.S., it’s the cause of death for one in every four women.
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In a 2011 study by a cardiologist at a Canadian hospital in Kingston, Ont., one out of every 14 people who came to the hospital’s emergency room for heart-attack symptoms had been shoveling snow. It’s not the sweat and strenuous effort that trigger a heart attack, but a combination of factors: With the cold, blood clots more readily. The cold causes blood vessels to constrict, which then raises blood pressure. Too much physical exertion – especially by someone who does not warm up properly or who does not exercise regularly – can worsen the burden on the cardiovascular system and cause a heart attack.
Yes, the cold is hard on the heart, but the root cause of rising heart disease in winter has little to do with the icy temperatures.
Researchers in Switzerland used a large-scale study to determine whether the risk of heart disease has a seasonal pattern – and why. Could it be all the over-indulging during the holiday season? Those empty calories certainly don’t help. I have chocolates and cookies coming into my office through December that don’t get finished until well into February. The Swiss study found that heart disease risk factors, such as blood pressure, total cholesterol and waist circumference, are higher in January and February but lower in July and August, compared with the annual average.
Experts from the Heart Institute at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles reported in 2012 that people are 26 to 36 percent more likely to die in winter from a heart attack, a stroke, heart failure or some other circulatory disease. They examined roughly 1.7 million death certificates from 2005 to 2008 from seven U.S. locations that ranged from hot to cold. The findings revealed that cold wasn’t a factor in increased deaths. They found that whether you live in a hot climate like Arizona or a colder climate like Pennsylvania, the pattern is the same.
Then why is winter so deadly? It’s because we’re not taking good care of ourselves.
Winter’s shorter days can leave us feeling more down and discouraged. We don’t feel like exercising or getting outside as often; we tend to socialize less and we turn to empty carbohydrates for comfort. When healthy lifestyle habits take a nosedive, people with existing conditions put themselves at greater risk. Those who suffer from depression, for example, are less likely to exercise and take their medications; depression causes chemical changes that can put extra stress on the cardiovascular system.
It’s the season of the domino effect. Someone who already has congestive heart failure might not stick to their low-salt diet, which can be enough to promote fluid retention and worsening heart failure and, eventually, death.
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So, how do you beat the odds and thrive during the winter season? While you might feel like holing up indoors and turning to empty carbohydrates for comfort, winter is the time to kick up your healthy habits.
With all the discerning evidence about cardiovascular issues during the cold season, here are my top five points to keep you on track:
1. Mindful Eating.
Enjoy a well-balanced diet to make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need. Studies show a strong link between food and mood, so bring out your optimist with additional vegetables, fruits and legumes. Make your own warming soups and stews so you can control the salt content.
While the bleak days might have you craving cake and cookies, savor a few squares of quality chocolate, preferably dark, although milk chocolate will help, too. University of Cambridge researchers in 2011 reviewed existing studies of chocolate’s health benefits. They found that the highest levels of chocolate consumption were associated with a 37 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29 percent reduction in stroke compared with the lowest levels.
2. Get outside.
Don’t let the cold, short days keep you sidelined on the couch. Dress for the weather and head outdoors. You can significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by walking 30 minutes a day, five times a week. Even 15 minutes a day of brisk walking will do the trick, adding up to three years of life expectancy, the World Heart Federation says.
Getting outside and connecting with nature has the associated benefit of boosting your mood and outlook.
3. Get Enough Vitamin D.
The buzz around vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin,” for good health has merit. Low levels of this crucial vitamin have been linked to depression and heart disease, among other conditions. It’s also key to bone health, helping the body use and absorb calcium and phosphorous.
Once again, get outside, especially when the days are bright. About 10 to 15 minutes a day of sun exposure will go a long way. Boost your intake with a supplement and eat foods rich in the vitamin, such as eggs, salmon, sardines and cod liver oil, your grandmother’s go-to fix for all ailments.
4. Warm Up.
Don’t grab your shovel and go full-hog to clear the snow without warming up. Your body needs some preparation, especially if you’re not a regular exerciser. So walk around the block first at a brisk pace and pump your arms.
When you’re ready, haul small loads and lift with your legs to protect your back. Putting your back out is bad enough, but there are serious related risks – the pain triggers adrenaline in the body, and the adrenaline ramps up heart rate and blood pressure, pushing you toward a heart attack.
Make a concerted effort to dress appropriately to ward off the chills, and wrap a scarf over your mouth to warm and humidify your inhalations. Ice-cold air constricts your lungs, which can make you short of breath and puts stress on the heart.
5. Stay Connected.
Don’t go it alone. We often associate winter with hard living, and isolation can only exacerbate those feelings and create unnecessary stress. But studies show that people who have good social networks are better equipped for optimism, and live longer and better.
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New research out of the University of North Carolina highlights the importance of the brain-heart connection. Essentially, the brain is connected to your heart by your vagus nerve. The higher your “vagal tone” – the stronger the brain-heart connection – the better. Your body is more effective at regulating the internal systems that keep you healthy, such as your cardiovascular, glucose and immune responses. This means that the more positive face-time you have with people, the stronger your vagal tone and capacity for health.
Whether it’s having a friend over for coffee, joining a group or taking part in an exercise class, these connections will help keep you well.
I hope you’ll take my tips and put them into practice. With heart attacks up in the winter, these measures will go a long way to protect your heart and keep you out of the Emergency Room. Happy holidays!