It’s no secret that as the temperature drops, heart attacks go up: Frigidly cold temperatures plus overexertion (shoveling a foot of snow off of your car’s roof, anyone?) are to blame. But so, too, may be another of winter's gifts: the holidays. The risk of having a heart attack is a whopping 37 percent higher on Christmas Eve, peaking at 10 p.m., according to a new analysis published earlier this month in the British Medical Journal.
The researchers analyzed over 280,000 heart attacks in Sweden over a 16-year period. While the biggest spike was on Christmas eve, there was also increased risk on Christmas day, Boxing Day (December 26), New Year’s Day and Midsummer (an important Swedish summer holiday). People over the age of 75, and people with chronic health conditions such as heart disease or diabetes, were at even higher risk.
This finding isn’t very surprising to cardiologists, ER doctors or even primary care physicians. Other research has found that deaths from heart disease shoot up around Christmas and New Year’s more than at any other time. “We call them ‘Christmas coronaries,’” says Darria Long Gillespie, an emergency department physician, national spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians and author of the upcoming book Mom Hacks: 100+ Science-Backed Shortcuts to Reclaim Your Body, Raise Awesome Kids, and Be Unstoppable. There are a few reasons why:
Emotional roller coasters. ‘Tis the season for stress — whether it’s financial (how are you going to swing your share of the bill for the whole-family holiday cruise?) or emotional (are you really going to have to listen to your brother’s political ramblings for three hours again this year?). Depression, too, plays a role. “The holidays are hard for older adults, who may not have as much social support as they did when they were younger, and thus feel lonely and isolated,” says Waqar Khan, an interventional cardiologist in Houston and an affiliate faculty member at the Baylor College of Medicine. And the same emotions that leave you feeling anxious and frazzled can also raise levels of hormones such as norepinephrine and adrenaline, which in turn can raise your blood pressure and heart rate enough to boost your heart attack risk.