Holidays and Heart Attacks

The downside of holiday revelry: December and January are the deadliest months for heart attacks. We look at the culprits — and ways to protect yourself.


More people die of heart attacks in December and January than any other time of the year. The culprits are the usual holiday merrymakers: rich festive feasts and more alcohol. Add to these risks a dose of holiday stress and something perhaps even more dangerous — simple denial.

Chest pain, which can be a signal of a heart attack, is all too easy to shrug off as indigestion, particularly during the holidays. After all, who wants to disrupt or dampen a celebration by overreacting to ‘heartburn’? Plus, with more people travelling over the holiday season, people are often reluctant to visit unfamiliar hospitals or emergency treatment centres.

The result? Precious minutes are lost.

“You have only a short window of opportunity to save heart muscle,” Dr. William Suddath of Washington Hospital Center told the Associated Press. Dr. Suddath and his 24/7 cardiac team aim to start clearing victims’ clogged arteries within 15 minutes of their arrival in the emergency room.

Possible causes of Christmas coronaries

Over-indulgence. High-fat meals stress the heart and can result in elevated blood pressure and heart rate. Too much salt can cause fluid retention, requiring the heart to pump harder. And while alcohol in moderation can be heart-healthy, overindulgence can put extra stress on the heart. More seriously, it can lead to “holiday heart syndrome,” where alcohol irritates the heart muscle and triggers an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation. This in turn can cause a stroke.

Holiday busyness. The hustle and bustle of the holidays can lead to the disruption of healthy eating habits and exercise programs as well as elevated stress. (Read about how to reduce holiday stress and build more activity into your holidays.) Some people are so caught up in holiday activities they forget to take their medications or are unable to refill them while travelling.

Cold weather. The wintry weather can constrict blood vessels, and the extra exertion of tasks such as shoveling snow can trigger a heart attack. Seasonal colds and flu can also be a burden to a stressed heart. Even so, the holiday spike in heart attacks occurs in warm climates as well.

Hospital under-staffing. Hospitals may be short-staffed during the holiday season — which can cause a delay in the time it takes to diagnose a heart attack and start clearing the blocked artery. In response, some hospitals are looking to speed care to people suffering from a heart attack with a policy called “door to balloon time”. The idea is to reopen blocked arteries with angioplasties or other procedures within 90 minutes of arrival.

The bottom line

To protect your heart heath this holiday season, experts advise to (1) watch what you eat and drink, (2) keep to your regular exercise regimen (as much as possible), (3) try to reduce stress, and (4) seek medical attention immediately if you experience any symptoms of a heart attack — don’t wait, and don’t automatically write it off as indigestion.

Warning signals of a heart attack

Recognizing the signs of a heart attack can be vital in seeking timely medical treatment. The Canadian Heart & Stroke Foundation says to be alert for the following symptoms.

– sudden discomfort or pain that does not go away with rest
– pain in the chest, neck, jaw, shoulder, arms or back
– pain that feels like burning, squeezing, heaviness, tightness or pressure
– in women, pain may be more vague
– chest pain or discomfort that is brought on with exertion and goes away with rest

Shortness of breath
– difficulty breathing

– indigestion
– vomiting

– cool, clammy skin

– anxiety
– denial

If you are experiencing any of these signals, the Heart & Stroke Foundation advises to:

– Call 9-1-1 or your local emergency number immediately.

– Stop all activity and sit or lie down, in whatever position is most comfortable.

– If you take nitroglycerin, take your normal dosage.

– If you are experiencing chest pain, chew and swallow one adult 325 mg ASA tablet (acetylsalicylic acid, commonly referred to as Aspirin®) or two 80 mg tablets. Note: Pain medicines such as acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) or ibuprofen (e.g. Advil®) do not work the same way as ASA (i.e. Aspirin®).

– Rest comfortably and wait for emergency medical services to arrive.


For more information, visit the Heart and Stroke Foundation.