As the temperatures drop, the rates of heart disease rise.
“Heart disease can occur any time of the year, but there is some seasonality to it, and it does increase in the winter months,” says UNC cardiologist Christopher Kelly, MD. Cardiologists don’t know for sure why the winter months are riskier for hearts, but it might be because the cold reduces the supply of oxygen-rich blood that reaches your heart muscle.
Here are four ways you can reduce your risk of heart disease this winter.
1. Try to ease holiday stress.
Deaths from heart disease begin to climb around Thanksgiving, peak early in the new year, then decrease as warmer weather returns. In fact, the greatest risk for a heart attack is 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Dr. Kelly says.
“Although most of us think very fondly of the winter holidays, they increase the risk of a heart attack because all the things you have to do to get ready—such as hosting people at your home or shopping for gifts—can put extra stress on your body,” Dr. Kelly says. “And stress can precipitate heart conditions.”
High stress levels elevate your blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate. These elevated levels can, in turn, trigger a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack.
“Do what you can to moderate your stress level,” Dr. Kelly says.
For example, when that to-do list seems endless, take some deep breaths. Filling your lungs with air can improve your oxygen levels, slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. Then, focus on one task at a time, celebrate what you’ve accomplished and schedule breaks to relax in between tasks.
2. Practice moderation when it comes to food and drink.
We tend to eat more unhealthy foods and drink more alcohol in the colder months, especially around the holidays, Dr. Kelly says.
“People drink more alcohol and relax their diet a little bit and have saltier, fattier foods around that time, which is also added stress on the body,” Dr. Kelly says.
Eating a diet high in saturated or trans fats is linked to heart disease, and too much salt and alcohol can raise your blood pressure, which also taxes your heart. Chronically elevated blood pressure means your heart has to work harder than it should to circulate blood throughout your body.
It’s not easy, but try to practice moderation and try to eat heart-healthy foods such as those that are low in sodium, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
3. Don’t overdo it—especially outside.
If you’re not used to a lot of physical activity, be very careful when you head outdoors to travel, play or exercise. Cold air may make your arteries constrict, which can decrease blood flow and delivery of oxygen to your heart.
“Try not to overexert yourself,” Dr. Kelly says. “For example, if your driveway is covered in snow and you are not a physically fit person, do not attempt to shovel your entire driveway without help, especially if you have risk factors for heart disease.”
Protect yourself from the elements by dressing in layers and wearing appropriate clothing.
4. Get your flu and COVID-19 shots.
Influenza (the seasonal flu) has been linked to increased heart attacks and strokes, Dr. Kelly says. And research shows COVID-19 can cause heart and vascular damage.
Get your flu vaccination and get vaccinated against COVID-19 to reduce your risk of having these viruses and and all the complications that can come with them.
If you experience shortness of breath or chest discomfort, especially with activity, seek medical attention immediately to rule out a heart problem.
Need a cardiologist? Find one near you.