Holiday Season Brings Cheer...and Chest Pain

Despite the unnaturally warm, sunny weather we are experiencing today in Tennessee, the Holiday season has arrived.  It is officially December so bring on the hot cocoa, christmas lights and peppermint laced delicacies. For most of us, the Holiday season brings a sense of coziness, comfort and community to our homes.  But for others December presents the culmination of chronic health issues.  On December 25th, the number of deaths from heart attack is higher than any other day of the year.

Let's Talk Food

Why do so many suffer from heart attack during the month of December and especially on Christmas Day?  Researchers have a few theories.  First, let's talk food.  During the holiday season we tend to gain a few pounds.  Those of us who typically lay off things like added salt and dessert are more likely to indulge during the Holidays.  Added weight and an increase in salt intake strains an already unhealthy heart and can result in myocardial infarction.  Individuals may ignore initial warning signs of heart attack and delay seeking medical treatment during holiday festivities contributing to an increased death rate.

Baby It's Cold Outside

Although December 25th tops the list for cardiac deaths, a spike in the number of heart-related problems is seen throughout the winter months.  Cold weather is known to place stress on the heart.  Blood vessels constrict in cold weather raising blood pressure.  Add in physical exertion such as snow-shoveling or walking a mile from the mall to your parking spot and it may just be too much for a heart already plagued with atherosclerosis.

Too Much Eggnog

Excessive alcohol consumption is hard on the heart, especially with the additional cardiac stressors we have already discussed.  In the 1970's, the term "Holiday Heart Syndrome" was coined to describe cardiac arrhythmia's resulting from downing a few too many alcoholic beverages during the holiday season.  Too much alcohol consumption most commonly leads to atrial fibrillation and occasionally supra-ventricular tachycardias. Even moderate alcohol consumption in an individual with preexisting coronary disease can trigger an arrhythmia. 

All in the Family

Yes, spending time with your mother-in-law, brother, sister, cousin, [insert name of obnoxious family member here] may actually kill you.  Emotional stress caused by interacting with family raises blood pressure, increases heart rate and results in release of stress hormones.  This combination can result in sudden cardiac death, arrhythmia or heart failure in an individual with preexisting heart disease.

So, should nurse practitioners instruct their patients to sit at home alone and eat oatmeal this Holiday season?  Well, no.  But, I think it is appropriate to counsel your patients with risk factors to take it easy on the salt and alcohol, avoid adding on a few pounds and seek immediate treatment for chest pain, palpitations and any other cardiac symptoms.