Cold weather is setting in around the country; some places already have snow! In preparation for the cold months to come, we are looking at the health risks winter can pose to the heart. Snow may look pretty, but extended periods outside can be hazardous.
Heart attack rates go up in winter months, and there are many theories as to why. “The cold temperature itself does thicken your blood, and we from a physiology standpoint, [believe] that may increase the risk of blood clots, and also increases the risk of heart attack or stroke, but we do not know for sure that there is a direct cause and effect relationship,” said Dr. Richard Vu.
Heart attacks increase by 31 percent during the coldest months of the year versus the hottest. Severe weather can also increase both blood pressure and cholesterol. The flu or a cold is more likely in cold weather, and those illnesses can cause heightened cholesterol as well as constricted blood vessels. While your body creates 75 percent of your cholesterol in the liver, 25 percent comes from food. While we all enjoy hearty, warming meals, avoid eating too many “warm weather” foods that are high in fat, sugar or cholesterol. Stews are delicious, but hot vegetable soup can be just as warming and comforting while also being better for your heart! Just be sure to read the label if it’s premade — vegetable soups can be surprisingly high in salt.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends avoiding extended periods outside. Being very cold can cause hypothermia which can cause cardiac arrest. There are additional risks from shoveling snow. Heavy snow can put a strain on your body if you don’t regularly lift heavy objects. Going from no weight training to shoveling snow for an extended period. That’s why the AHA suggests taking frequent breaks and listening to your body when your shoveling.
“Be especially careful about exerting yourself outdoors in winter,” said Dr. Randall Zusman of Massachusetts General Hospital. “Pushing an inch of snow is one thing, but shoveling heavy, wet, deep snowfall is very risky. I encourage my patients to avoid doing so, especially if they have risk factors for heart disease.”
Dress in layers so that you can stay warm and dry but also cool yourself if you become too hot.
Another considerable heart risk in winter is missed medications. If you are on prescription drugs, cold weather, snow and ice may stop you from getting to the store. Make sure you refill your prescriptions before you run out. That way, if it’s too cold outside, you won’t have to leave home to get your medications.
Be sure to take care of your heart health this winter. Additionally, if you believe you may be having a heart attack, call 911. You don’t want to dismiss a medical emergency as being a sign of being winded or out of shape after trudging through the snow or walking in the cold night’s air. It’s better to be safe than sorry!