The festive season is a time of gifts and revelry. But a surprise may be looming for those who party too hard. A heart attack can strike at any time in a person with coronary artery disease. It has been noted that across the globe, heart attacks are more likely during the festive season and especially between the Christmas and New Year period.
Initially this was believed to be due to the colder weather in the northern hemisphere during the Christmas period but the spike in often deadly heart attacks are just as likely to occur in warmer climates. There are several reasons why this may be the case but the exact cause has not as yet been conclusively identified and it is most likely not a single factor.
How does a heart attack occur?
A heart attack arises when the blood supply to the heart is severely compromised. The heart is a muscular pump that never stops working in life. It needs a constant supply of oxygen-rich blood to sustain itself. When the blood supply and therefore oxygen is too little or cut off altogether, a part of the heart muscle dies. This is then known as a heart attack. Not all heart attacks are fatal. It depends on the area of the heart muscle that is affected and how quickly effective treatment can be started.
The heart has several blood vessels carrying fresh blood to it. These vessels are known as coronary arteries. In coronary artery disease (CAD), these vessels are gradually narrowed by the build up of fatty plaques in its walls. This happens over a long period of time. It usually does not cause any symptoms in the early stages but as it gets worse, a person may experience chest pain during exercise and when stressed. This is known as angina pectoris. Eventually a small blood clot may form, often within hours, and totally block the already narrowed artery. A heart attack then occurs.
Reasons for Christmas Heart Attacks
A person with coronary artery disease (CAD) is at constant risk of a heart attack. However, not every person with coronary artery disease is even aware of their underlying condition. Sometimes a heart attack strikes when a person had no previous symptoms. It is therefore important to have regular check ups especially if you are over 45 years, have a family history of heart attacks and related diseases, are obese, have diabetes mellitus (sugar diabetes), high blood cholesterol or hypertension (high blood pressure). Some of the reasons why a heart attack is more likely to occur during the festive season are largely related to the change in diet and lifestyle around the holiday time.
Overindulgence in alcohol increases the stress on your heart by forcing it to pump harder to get blood to the outer lying areas like the legs. In coronary artery disease, the heart cannot cope with this increased workload and a heart attack may occur. Alcohol can also irritate the heart tissue and cause it to beat irregularly. This is known as holiday heart syndrome. It may disrupt normal blood flow and even lead to a stroke.
Extra salt and fatty foods can also contribute to heart attack during periods of binge eating. Salt can cause your body to retain water even within a short period of time. More water means that your heart has to pump harder. Fatty foods are known to have a major effect on the build up of plaques on the wall of the arteries over months or years. But high fat and large meals can strain the heart in the short term and increase the chance of a clot forming. Even if the damage is not done immediately, it can have its effects within a few weeks or months.
The festive period is often thought to be a time of rest and relaxation. But the partying and other holiday activities can be physically taxing. Add in a bit of emotional stress with family matters, and the financial strain of a period where spending is the norm, and you will quickly find that the festive season is extremely stressful. Physical, mental or even emotional stress causes the heart to beat faster and the blood pressure to rise. This places additional strain on the heart.
Eating, lazing around and even the holiday drinking contribute to weight gain. It takes just days to pile on those pounds but weeks or months to get rid of the excess fat. A single Christmas meal can sometimes exceed the daily calorie intake by three times and the festive seasons runs over several days. The weight gain strains the heart in the short term and increases the risk of heart disease in the long term.
The fun and festivity often means that your health is the last thing on your mind. People tend to forget to take their medication on time or miss it altogether during the holiday season. Chronic medication, especially for high cholesterol and hypertension, has to be taken as prescribed and missing even a single day can increase the risk of a heart attack in the short term.
Preventing a Heart Attack
Avoiding that fateful heart attack is not always in your hands. Proper medical management is key to preventing a heart attack along with lifestyle changes that have to be implemented and maintained over the long term. But slipping up even for a few days can be risky. The problem with Christmas heart attacks is that the warning symptoms are often missed. Most people pass off the chest pain as indigestion from eating that massive Christmas lunch and nobody wants to be a party pooper and rush off to the doctor during the festivities.
Delaying that trip to the emergency room increases the chance of heart attack with more serious consequences and possibly even death. Seek medical attention immediately if you have any of the warning signs. It may just be indigestion but it is better to be safe than sorry.