The winter holidays are a time of celebrating and sharing precious time with family and friends, but they can also be deadly: More people die of heart attacks on Christmas Day than on any other day of the year.
Experts aren't certain what's behind that troubling fact, but they offer some suggestions to help ensure that you and your loved ones aren't among them.
"The holidays are a busy, often stressful, time for many of us. Routines are disrupted; we may tend to eat and drink more and exercise and relax less. We're getting too little sleep and experiencing too much stress,” said Dr. Mitchell Elkind, chief clinical science officer for the American Heart Association (AHA).
“We also may not be listening to our bodies or paying attention to warning signs, thinking a trip to the doctor can wait until after the new year,” he added.
Citing a study published in the AHA's journal Circulation, the AHA said that after Dec. 25, the second-most heart attack deaths happen on Dec. 26, followed by Jan. 1.
While cold weather restricting blood vessels is one potential cause, another study, also published in Circulation, found that even in Los Angeles County's mild climate, about one-third more heart attacks happen in December and January than in June through September. This is true even in New Zealand, where the weather is warm at Christmastime, according to another study.
“While we don't know exactly why there are more deadly heart attacks during this time of year, it's important to be aware that all of these factors can be snowballing contributors to increasing the risk for a deadly cardiac event,” Elkind said in an AHA news release.
Among the ways to stay heart-healthy during the holiday season:
“Research also shows that the biggest increases in these holiday heart attack deaths are among people who are not in a hospital. This highlights the importance of recognizing symptoms and seeking immediate medical care,” Elkind said. “Don't ignore heart attack warning signs because you don't want to spoil the holidays, the consequences could be much worse.”
It's also important that people learn how to perform hands-only CPR so they can help when they witness someone having a heart emergency.
“You could be out holiday shopping, enjoying an office party or spending time at a family gathering and witness someone having a heart attack and going into cardiac arrest," Elkind said. "Starting CPR immediately and calling 911 could be the difference in life or death in those situations. Hands-only CPR is something nearly everyone can learn and do."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the signs of a heart attack.
SOURCE: American Heart Association, news release, Nov. 30, 2022