Protecting Heart Health in the Winter Months

Protecting Heart Health in the Winter Months

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Humans are warm-blooded—we maintain a steady internal body temperature, regardless of surrounding conditions. Under normal circumstances, that temperature remains at just below 99oF/37oC. This process happens automatically, without any effort on our part.

But when we’re exposed to cold, the cardiovascular system must work harder to maintain this ideal body temperature and prevent hypothermia, a life-threatening condition. One mechanism that our body utilizes to maintain body temperature is vasoconstriction—narrowing of the blood vessels.

When the vessels narrow, blood pressure and heart rate increase. In fit, healthy people, vasoconstriction typically creates relatively few concerns. But, for those with the following risk factors, this added cardiovascular stress can be dangerous to heart health and even lead to heart attack:

  • Advanced age
  • Excess weight
  • High blood pressure
  • Elevated cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • History of smoking
  • Inactivity/lack of fitness
  • History of cardiovascular disease or heart attack

Winter Risks Can Add Up

Winter months in general can bring extra stress, including what’s known as the “holiday effect.” Studies have revealed an approximately four percent increase in cardiac deaths around the winter holidays, as we tend to travel more and sleep less and are more likely to indulge in unhealthy eating and drinking.

Winter can also bring more sickness, in the form of colds, flu and other viral infections. This additional stress to the immune system can affect the heart. And although the current pandemic has certainly limited travel this winter, it has certainly increased society’s overall stress level.

We also tend to be less active in cold weather, reducing overall fitness. And fewer hours of daylight may contribute to heart risks as well, though we’re not yet sure exactly why.

It’s safe to say that winter brings multiple stress factors—and they can begin to add up.

But it’s cold weather that poses the most significant risk of cardiac illness in wintertime. Winter temperatures literally act like a stress test, putting an extra load on the heart. In fact, cold can increase an individual’s risk of cardiac problems by over 30 percent throughout the season. Life in a snowy area can be even more problematic—the strenuous activity of shoveling snow can put a dangerous strain on the heart, especially for people who don’t exercise regularly.

Cold temperatures could contribute to plaque rupture, which occurs when bits of plaque in the arteries break loose. Like rust in a pipe, plaque forms on the interior walls of an artery, narrowing the opening. And like rust, external forces can dislodge it. As the arteries experience vasoconstriction when exposed to cold, the bits of plaque create thrombus in the artery which may then block a coronary artery and starve the heart of oxygen—the beginning of a heart attack.

In winter temperatures, blood vessels narrow, and blood pressure and heart rate increase, causing the heart to work harder. This can lead to heart attack. More from Dr. Abdallah. via @MedStarWHC
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Bundle Up

Everyone—including patients with some of the inherent risk factors we listed above—can take common-sense precautions to protect the heart when temperatures dip. Here are some winter heart health tips:

  • There’s a saying that there’s no such thing as harsh weather, only inadequate clothing. And it turns out your mother was right: If you’re uncomfortable out in the cold, you’re not dressed properly!
    Keeping the core warm helps to protect the heart and keeps more blood moving to the extremities. Fingers and toes tend to suffer injury first when exposed to extreme or long-term wind and cold. If your fingers are cold, you need better gloves or mittens. Keep your feet warm and dry. A hat prevents heat loss through the head. A scarf protects the neck. If you feel chilled or uncomfortable, move indoors.
  • If you are mostly sedentary and do not exercise regularly, it may be advisable to skip a big snow-shoveling project—it could be hazardous to your heart. Even regular exercisers should take care with shoveling, which uses different muscle groups than a typical workout. As with other physical activities, warm up with a brisk walk or light calisthenics before shoveling. Take frequent breaks, stay hydrated, and get to a warmer space if you feel chilled.
  • Stay prepared for wintry weather, which can come on suddenly. Keep your car’s gas tank filled and your cellphone battery charged. Let loved ones know where you are going and how long you plan to stay. And don’t go out at all if severe weather is predicted. Other than a medical emergency, most activities can wait until roads are clear.

Know the Warning Signs

On a wintry day, head indoors if you are short of breath or feel pain, pressure, or burning in the chest. These are classic warning signs of a heart attack; however, keep in mind that every patient’s experience is unique. Some feel tightness in the chest; others report pressure, like someone sitting on the chest. Some feel discomfort in the neck, jaw, or left arm and shoulder. And symptoms can vary widely between men and women.

The chest is a crowded area, home to muscle, bones, and organs. It takes an experienced physician to evaluate heart health and determine if chest pain in cold weather is originating from the heart. So it’s critical to seek attention immediately if you feel chest discomfort. When the heart is involved, the longer you wait, the more likely you are to become sicker, with further complications.

Besides taking your health history and completing a physical exam, we can administer tests to determine if the heart is in trouble, including EKG and blood tests. If you have any concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We’re here to keep you safe, and it’s much safer to go to the hospital for a false alarm than to stay home with a cardiac event. Thousands die each year by making the wrong choice.

We’re Here for You During the Pandemic

MedStar Washington Hospital Center is among the safest places you can be at any time, and particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. We understand the coronavirus and how to protect our patients and staff. And we understand that COVID-19 itself—and its detrimental impact on the lungs—can also be harmful to heart health. So during the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to get your regular checkups, stay in touch with your doctor, and seek medical assistance immediately if you experience any discomfort in your chest.

MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute is nationally recognized as one of the nation’s top cardiovascular programs. We utilize the latest technologies in the diagnosis and treatment of the most complex cardiac cases, including valve surgery and heart transplantation. Our team includes accomplished, experienced clinicians trained at the world’s finest institutions and hospitals.

MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s Emergency Department and Trauma Center operate at the same high standards. In service to an always-busy metropolitan area, our Emergency Medicine team is specially trained to take care of cardiac emergencies of all types. Our cardiologists and cardiac catheterization lab are available around the clock for emergency procedures as well.

Stay Heart-Healthy This Winter

Keep warm and follow these heart-healthy habits to help avoid heart issues in cold weather:

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
  • Avoid nicotine and limit alcohol—both can serve as vasoconstrictors and increase your chances of cardiac complications.
  • Try for at least 50 minutes of moderate exercise, three times each week, or more. But if this amount of activity isn’t possible, anything you do to increase your level of activity will serve to help your heart.
  • Practice healthy relaxation techniques to reduce stress that may be harmful to your heart.

Chest pain this winter?

Our cardiology team can help.

Call 202-788-5048 or Request an Appointment

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