Protect Your Heart during the Winter

Smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity and lack of exercise, as you probably know, are all factors that can take a heavy toll on your heart. But did you know that winter can also affect your cardiovascular health?

Some research puts the increase in the overall incidence of heart attack at more than 50 percent in the winter when compared with summer. People with existing heart problems have a higher risk from cold weather and need to take precautions. But even healthy individuals should take heed.

Consider the following factors that contribute to winter-related heart problems and find out what you can do to minimize your risk.

Colder temperatures Exposure to cold temperatures causes blood vessels to constrict and may reduce blood flow to the heart, which can lead to increases in blood pressure. In fact, British researchers estimate that for every 1 degree Celsius (or 1.8 degree Fahrenheit) drop in temperature, 200 more heart attacks occur daily among men and women in the two weeks to a month following the fluctuation.

Stay toasty. The advice itself is simple: Dress warmer. But there is a right way to go about it. Rather than throwing on a single heavy coat, dress in thin, less absorbent, breathable layers—for example, silk, wool, fleece and down. Layers provide insulation by trapping warm air between them. Make sure to wear a hat and scarf, as well. If temperatures are extremely cold, try to minimize your time outside or avoid going out altogether.

Shoveling snow Snow-shoveling is a strenuous activity that, when coupled with cold temperatures, increases the demand on your heart—especially if you haven't been exercising regularly. Breathing in cold air while you shovel increases the workload further. For people who have heart disease, there can be an increased risk of cardiac arrest.

Many people also tend to shovel in the morning hours, when stress hormones peak and blood is more prone to clotting. Play it safe. According to the American Heart Association, you can make your snow-shoveling duties safer by following these suggestions:

  • Warm up before shoveling by doing light exercise for five to 10 minutes, such as a slow walk or marching in place. Stretching the back, legs and arms beforehand can help prevent injury as well.
  • Rather than shoveling a heavy pile, push or lift smaller amounts of snow, or consider investing in a snow thrower.
  • Dress in layers.
  • Take frequent breaks.
  • Don't drink alcohol—it can give you a false sense of warmth.
  • Avoid eating a heavy meal before or right after shoveling—it can put an extra load on your heart.

If you're not very active, or you already have heart problems or risk factors for heart disease, consult with your physician before embarking on winter chores. For safety's sake, also learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of a heart attack and hypothermia (abnormally low body temperature that can trigger heart problems).

Holiday stress Research has found that cardiac incidents and deaths spike around Christmas and New Year's, yet findings have been far from conclusive as to why exactly it happens. Could it be holiday stress? Some researchers think so.

In general, chronic stress can increase heart rate, raise blood pressure and may lead to detrimental behavior that affects the heart, such as drinking, smoking, overeating and not exercising. Rather than disrupt their holidays, people who are experiencing heart problems or symptoms of a cardiac event may not seek proper medical attention, delaying what could be life-saving treatment.

Tone it down. Managing stress hasn't been proven to help prevent heart disease, but you can still act to better your overall health. Recognize that you can only do so much, and scale back your celebrations, if necessary.

You might also consider volunteering at a local soup kitchen or charitable organization to help you get into the true spirit of the season. Finally, if stress seems to be getting the better of you, don't be afraid to ask for help. If you find that you're having trouble functioning—problems at work or home because of the stress—or are having physical symptoms, such as an irregular heart beat or rapid breathing, enlist the help of your physician or another trained medical professional, such as a psychologist or counselor.

Flu The aches, fever, cough and fatigue that come with a bout of flu are miserable, but if you have a chronic health problem, such as heart disease or diabetes, flu can cause a worsening of your condition or complications such as pneumonia, dehydration, heart attack and death.

Why is flu most prevalent in winter? While some experts have long hypothesized that crowding ourselves indoors, such as in a school setting, make flu more likely to spread, other researchers aren't as convinced. A study out of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York found that the virus, which is transmitted primarily through the air, is just better able to survive in cooler, drier air.

Stay flu-free. The best prevention is to get a flu shot (people without established heart problems also benefit). British researchers found that people who got the vaccine early in the flu season—about mid-September to mid-November—had a 20 percent lowered risk of heart attack for the 12 months following than those who didn't get the vaccine. Individuals who got their shots later in the season experienced a 12 percent reduction in risk.

Some experts also estimate that as many as 91,000 coronary deaths could be prevented each year if people at high risk received a flu shot. Should you develop flu symptoms, see your physician right away to determine whether an antiviral therapy may work for you.

Shorter days When skin gets less sunlight, you're at greater risk of vitamin D deficiency. The sun helps your body produce vitamin D, and not getting enough of it is thought to play a role in heart disease and high blood pressure. In a review article in the journal Circulation several years ago, researchers reported that sun-deprived people with heart disease faced 30 to 50 percent higher rates of severe cardiovascular disease or death, compared with people who lived in places like the sun-drenched Mediterranean coast and in southern European countries.

Get your vitamin D. Since your physician may not routinely test vitamin D levels, ask about finding out your levels. Few foods naturally contain it, but options include fortified cheese, milk and cereal, as well as fatty fish such as salmon and tuna. Since it can be difficult to get vitamin D from diet alone, talk with your physician about supplements.

In general, experts recommend that people ages 9 to 70 get 600 IU a day. For those over 70, the recommended daily intake is 800 IU daily.

Publication Review By: Gary Gerstenblith, M.D., and Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D.

Published: 03 Jul 2013

Last Modified: 15 Jan 2015