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Heart attack deaths spike around winter holidays, expert group warns

Reducing holiday stress and taking care of your body year-round can help lower your risk.

The winter holiday season is supposed to be a time of celebrating and gathering with loved ones. But it's also the time of year when doctors see more heart attack deaths than any other season, the American Heart Association warned.

Research confirms that heart attack deaths spike during the last week of December. The AHA pointed to one study, published in 2004 in Circulation, which found the highest number of deadly heart attacks typically occurred right around Christmas and New Year's during the two decades prior to the study.

Experts aren't sure why more people die due to heart attacks during the winter than at other times of the year. But it's likely there are multiple factors involved.

Holiday stress as well as the disruption of our regular eating, sleeping and exercising routines may contribute to an increased risk, Dr. Mitchell S.V. Elkind, chief clinical science officer for the AHA, said in a press release. "We also may not be listening to our bodies or paying attention to warning signs, thinking a trip to the doctor can wait until after the new year," Elkind said.

Elkin added, “It’s important to be aware that all of these factors can be snowballing contributors to increasing the risk for a deadly cardiac event."

And while cold weather may contribute to some heart attack risk because it causes blood vessels to constrict, research suggests this seasonal effect also shows up in areas of the country with milder climates, such as Los Angeles.

Although experts aren't sure what's behind the seasonal increase, For instance, it's a good idea to stick to heart-healthy eating and drinking habits, getting regular exercise, continuing to take your usual medications and finding ways to reduce stress throughout the year, the AHA advises.

Even if it seems inconvenient to get medical attention at this time of year, there are certain warning signs you should never ignore, the AHA says. Those symptoms include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort.
  • Vomiting, nausea or lightheadedness.
  • Neck, jaw or back pain.
  • Discomfort or pain in one arm or shoulder.
  • Shortness of breath.

These symptoms tend to occur together, explained previously, and you may also notice that you're no longer able to physically exert yourself the way you used to.

Additionally, signs of a heart attack in women may be more subtle than those in men. The most common symptom for both men and women is chest pain or discomfort, but women are more likely to also experience symptoms like nausea and fatigue.