Friday, December 14, 2007

Winter risks: cold weather and heart attacks

Cold weather brings snow and holiday cheer, but also a multitude of risks, including risk of heart attack. Before you begin shoveling snow or setting out for holiday festivities, learn about your risk for heart-related conditions.

Winter as the Prime Time for Heart Attacks

Though research is still developing on the subject, there is a rise in the number of heart attacks during the winter months.

Some studies suggest that people with coronary artery disease, or disease that occurs when cholesterol builds up within the walls of the heart’s arteries, are at higher risk for heart attack during harsh winter weather. People with coronary artery disease also typically experience chest pain, or angina, in cold weather.

The reasons for this are twofold. Cold weather causes the arteries to tighten, slowing blood flow and reducing the amount of oxygen that reaches the heart. The body is also overexerting itself as it needs to work harder to obtain oxygen and stay warm.

Who’s at Risk?

Winter activities such as shoveling snow early in the morning or other yard work also put people at higher risk for heart attacks. Though physical activity is essential for maintaining good heart health, it is important to only do what your body can handle.

Holiday revelers are also at increased risk. Seasonal parties and other events bring foods and drinks that are not always heart-healthy. During this time of the year, people should continue to eat a low-fat diet, maintain a healthy weight, and control their blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Other people at risk include:

  • People with hypertension, also known as high blood pressure
  • People with acquired low levels of HDL, high levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) blood cholesterol or high levels of triglycerides
  • Cigarette smokers
  • People who are under a lot of stress
  • People who drink too much alcohol Individuals who lead a sedentary lifestyle
  • Persons overweight by 30 percent or more
  • Persons who eat a diet high in saturated fat
  • Persons with Type II diabetes

How to Know if it’s a Heart Attack

Heart attack occurs when one or more regions of the heart's muscle experience a severe or prolonged lack of oxygen caused by a blockage in blood flow. This blockage is often caused by a buildup of plaque, also known as cholesterol.

Symptoms for heart attack include, but are not limited to:

  • Severe pressure, fullness, squeezing, pain and/or discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes
  • Pain or discomfort that spreads to the shoulders, neck, arms, or jaw
  • Chest pain that increases in intensity
  • Chest pain that is not relieved by rest or by taking nitroglycerin
  • Chest pain that occurs with any/all of the following (additional) symptoms:
    • Sweating, cool, clammy skin, and/or paleness
    • Shortness of breath
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Dizziness or fainting
    • Unexplained weakness or fatigue
    • Rapid or irregular pulse

Above all, if you are questioning if your symptoms are from a heart attack, go to the emergency room or call 911.

Tips for Staying Safe and Healthy

The best thing to do to stay healthy and safe throughout the winter is to know your personal risks for heart attack.

It’s also important to keep your body warm, particularly by covering your head, hands and feet with warm, dry clothing. These are the areas of the body that lose heat first.

Though it’s important to shovel the driveway, remember to take breaks to avoid overexertion. A good rule of thumb is to shovel for 15 minutes or so, then take a break. If the body isn’t prepared to handle shoveling snow, then get help from friends or neighbors.

Lastly, remember to enjoy the holiday season. Don’t let holiday-related stress or anxiety get the best of you. It’s the time of the year to celebrate safely, and of course, to enjoy the snow.

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