The death rate from heart attacks, heart failure, cardiovascular disease and stroke increased between January and March by 36 percent compared to summer months, regardless of the area.
The rate of heart attack incidence increases during the winter months. Physicians and researchers have known this for some time, but new information sheds light on winter's affect on the heart.
It was believed that heart attacks increased due to additional stress on the heart such as shoveling snow by people who are not used to such intense physical activity, but researchers at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles studied four years' worth of death certificates in seven locations, in all over 1.7 million were studied. The seven locations featured varied climates: LA County in California, Texas, Arizona, Georgia, Washington, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. They found the death rate from heart attacks, heart failure, cardiovascular disease and stroke increased between January and March by 36 percent compared to summer months, regardless of the area.
This tells us that battling the cold elements isn't the main factor for the rise in heart attacks. While research hasn't pinpointed one specific cause, the fact remains that people have more heart attacks between January and March than the rest of the year.
There are a few leading theories on why this occurs. Because the days are shorter, exposure to sunlight is limited, a factor for many that can trigger sadness and even depression.
Some people tend to hibernate in the winter, not wanting to get out and socialize as much because of the earlier nightfall and the cold temperatures. The lack of socialization and activity can further cause isolation and moodiness.
Diet and exercise are often the first things to go once cold weather sets in. Even a few extra pounds around the waistline can have a dramatic effect on someone with a preexisting heart condition.
Exercise may take a back seat once darkness and the cold weather set in. We're more likely to snack in front of the fireplace while watching television than going for a walk or even getting out to go to the gym.
In addition to personal habits, contracting other health problems, such as the flu or lung infections, can cause significant problems as these infections can put extra strain on the heart. Preventing infections and viruses will help protect the heart, so talk with your doctor about a flu shot, wash your hands frequently and avoid people who are sick.
Scarce sunshine increases the chance of vitamin D deficiency, which has been linked with inflammation and cardiovascular deaths.
To combat the increased risk of heart attacks in the winter, it's important to avoid the temptation to hide away until spring. Get out and socialize, stay with your regular routine of exercise and activities. Don't stop just because the sun goes down a few hours earlier. It's important to remain active. Socialization and activity are good for your heart.
Eating foods packed with nutrients instead of junk food is also a good idea. Foods that contain monounsaturated fats, such as peanut butter, olive oil, avocados and nuts, can help reduce bad cholesterol levels and help stabilize blood sugar. They've been proven to lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Get as much sunshine as you can by taking a walk during the day, if possible. Because of the decrease of sunlight, you may have to make a point of getting outside more often when the sun is shining.
Thomas Mulhearn, MD, is a cardiologist with Cardiovascular Specialists of SWLA and medical staff member of West Calcasieu Cameron Hospital