Tis the season for snowstorms, freezing rain and chilling winds in many areas of the country. But if you’re an older adult, you should think twice before digging yourself out of winter’s wrath, health experts say, especially if you have a heart condition or a history of heart disease. The same advice applies to individuals who aren't used to regular exercise.
Every year people die of a heart attack during or just after snow removal, says Barry A. Franklin, who has studied the effects of snow shoveling on the heart and is the lead author of an American Heart Association scientific statement on exercise-related heart risks.
In fact, nearly 200,000 people were treated in emergency rooms for snow-shoveling-related incidents from 1990 to 2006, according to a 2011 study published in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine. That’s an average of 11,500 people a year. About 1,647 deaths were also recorded during that time — all cardiac related.
Franklin’s team found that the exertion required to shovel snow drives up a person’s heart rate and blood pressure. In addition, since the chore requires engaging seldom-used arm muscles while the legs are mostly still, blood tends to pool in the lower extremities. At the same time, cold temperatures constrict the arteries, decreasing the amount of blood and oxygen reaching the heart.
Straining and breath-holding — common when lifting heavy loads, like wet snow — further aggravate the stress on the heart.
“It really is a perfect storm for a heart attack,” says Franklin, who is director of preventive cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at Beaumont Health in Royal Oak, Michigan. “It’s physically very, very taxing.”
Danger depends on fitness level, risk factors
A 2017 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal examined 128,073 hospital admissions and found that heavy snowfall was associated with a higher risk of hospital admission for heart attacks in men. The risks were elevated regardless of age, cardiovascular risk factors and other health conditions.
Franklin advises anyone age 45 or older not to tackle shoveling. He says the recommendation stems from a landmark study that indicates about 85 percent of U.S. adults age 50-plus already have underlying coronary artery disease.