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Holiday heart attacks: Why they’re most likely on Christmas and New Year’s Day and how to reduce your risk

Photo of Heart Attack commentary author
Dr. Leo Odle (above) is an internal medicine specialist at Optum. (File Photos/DigitalFreePress)
By Dr. Leo Odle | Point of View

It’s a scary and sad fact, yet it’s true. Studies show more people die from heart attacks on Dec. 25 than any other day of the year.

The next deadliest day for heart attacks is Dec. 26, followed by Jan. 1. According to the American Heart Association, too much stress, reduced sleep, eating more than usual and exercising less and not paying attention to the warning signs have the potential to escalate into a heart attack.

Because of everything that is going on around the holidays, some people who are experiencing mild cardiac symptoms may decide to put off a doctor’s visit until after the new year begins. Likewise, older people who need family and hired caregivers to get to their doctor’s office for scheduled or impromptu visits may experience transportation issues.

Ignoring symptoms and skipping scheduled visits are ill-advised and can increase health risks.

Other routine disruptions that occur during the holiday season can also contribute to the increased risk of a fatal heart attack. Family stress and travel, along with heavy holiday meals, can give rise to heart issues. In fact, research shows that the largest increase in holiday deaths from heart attacks occurs when the patient is not in the hospital. This underscores the importance of knowing the signs and symptoms, and then taking immediate action.

For men and women, the most common symptom to watch for is chest pain or discomfort. Other symptoms to be aware of include neck or back pain, indigestion, extreme fatigue, nausea or vomiting, upper body discomfort, dizziness and shortness of breath. These symptoms can happen at rest or during exercise. Other symptoms may include tiredness that will not go away. Identifying a heart attack early and receiving the proper treatment to restore blood flow can help decrease damage to the heart. Men and women experiencing these symptoms should listen to their bodies and call 911.

Besides recognizing the symptoms, men and women can reduce the risk of a heart attack by checking their blood pressure regularly, not smoking, checking their triglyceride and cholesterol levels, limiting alcohol, reducing stress and making healthy food a priority. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women of any age in the United States and is responsible for one in every five deaths. Half of men who die suddenly of coronary heart disease had no previous symptoms. This underscores the importance of regular checkups to detect heart disease and manage it.

This holiday season, take the extra time to focus on yourself and celebrate in moderation. Listen to your body. Think about exercising at least 150 minutes a week and don’t forget to take your medications. Also, we should all know how to perform hands-only CPR in the event a loved one or others need our help. Let’s save as many lives as we can this year and do what we can to reduce the chances of a heart attack.

Talk with your doctor before significantly increasing your activity level. Ask about the amounts and types of activities that may be best for you. If you haven’t been active, start slowly and increase intensity gradually.

Editor’s note: Dr. Leo Odle is an internal medicine specialist at Optum – Arizona.

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