With the holidays at hand, many people are focusing on the joys of the season. But as I mentioned in last week’s newsletter, the pressures of shopping and party-going need to be balanced with plenty of self-care and stress relief. If you’re thinking that you’ll just take a break from your healthy habits for a couple of weeks and then start the New Year fresh, please don’t!
Putting health on the back burner is exactly why the winter holidays are notorious for being the most deadly time of year, especially when it comes to heart attacks. In fact, more people die from heart attacks during Christmas and New Year’s than any other time of year, according to a study from the University of California, San Diego. Researchers concluded that the increase in heart attack fatalities is not because of cold weather (they looked at statistics from Los Angeles, which has very mild winters).
So why do heart attacks spike during the holidays? Putting off going to the emergency room or doctor when symptoms occur is the cause. With that in mind, now is a good time to review heart attack symptoms and look at what you can do if you or someone you’re with develops those symptoms. As my patient Stephen found, postponing treatment can quickly turn into a life-or-death situation.
Why Heart Attacks Happen
Heart attacks are the most common cause of death in the United States. Also known as a myocardial infarction (MI), a heart attack nearly always occurs in individuals who have coronary artery disease caused by atherosclerosis, fatty deposits inside arteries that interfere with blood flow. People at risk for heart attacks include those with the following conditions:
- Heart disease
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- A family history of heart disease
Heart attacks are dangerous because they force the heart to stop pumping, robbing it of oxygen. This happens because of blocked arteries. Arteries are basically tubes, so when they’re new and clean, blood flows smoothly and easily. But over time, artery linings can be damaged by diabetes, high blood pressure, cigarette smoke, and/or elevated levels of cholesterol or triglycerides. Eventually, traces of a fatty substance called plaque clings to the artery linings. As plaque accumulates, arteries narrow, leaving less space for blood to flow. At some point, a plaque deposit may rupture, causing a blood clot to form, blocking the artery. This causes a heart attack and results in the death of a portion of the heart muscle.
What Are Heart Attack Signs and Symptoms?
Since men and women often experience different symptoms, I’ve created two separate lists according to gender:
Heart Attack Symptoms in Men:
- Chest pain or discomfort (such as feeling pressure, squeezing, burning, fullness, or tightness in the chest), which may last for more than a few minutes or goes away and then returns
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the jaw, the upper portion of the stomach, the neck, or the back
- Shortness of breath with or before onset of chest discomfort
- Nausea or vomiting
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
- Fatigue, insomnia, or feeling drained of energy
These symptoms are similar to those experienced by patients with angina, the name given to chest pain caused by heart disease. Angina pain normally recedes when you rest or take a dose of nitroglycerin. However, if the pain does not respond to either rest or medication within 20 minutes or if it is more severe than usual, get medical attention immediately.
Heart Attack Symptoms in Women:
Before a heart attack, women often have pre–heart attack symptoms a month or more earlier. These symptoms may include the following (in order of frequency):
- Atypical (unusual) fatigue
- Sleep issues
- Shortness of breath
During a heart attack, women tend to experience symptoms similar to those before the attack (but in slightly different order in terms of frequency), listed here with most common first:
- Shortness of breath
- Atypical fatigue
- Cold sweat
Unlike men, most women do not experience chest pains per se. In fact, a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that fewer than 30 percent of women who suffered heart attacks reported chest pain.
Heart attack symptoms in men or women may occur from out of the blue, or they may develop over a period of time, ranging from a few days to weeks. Understand, too, that heart attack symptoms can vary with each individual, and those listed above are not the only possibilities. And although a second heart attack is often similar to the first, that’s not always the case. So if you’ve already had a heart attack, don’t ignore possible symptoms just because they seem different this time.
What to Do When Symptoms Occur
If you or someone you’re with is feeling weak or tired and is experiencing symptoms that could signal a heart attack, call 911 for help immediately. While you wait for the ambulance, I recommend chewing and swallowing an aspirin (preferably full strength, not a baby aspirin) and drinking a glass of water, if possible, to thin the blood. Do not try to drive yourself to the hospital or wait for someone to take you. Paramedics can begin treating a patient when they arrive, and the sooner an individual gets help, the less damage to the heart.
In fact, hesitating or waiting to see what happens is the reason for the increase in holiday heart attack fatalities. Too many people are reluctant to interrupt Christmas dinner or New Year’s Eve plans because they don’t feel well. By ignoring what their bodies are telling them, they’re risking everything, and too often, they pay a very steep price.
What Happens at the Hospital
If doctors suspect a heart attack, they’ll take your blood pressure, check your heart rate, and listen to your heart and lungs to determine how well your heart is functioning. You will also have a blood test to measure heart-muscle enzymes, and an electrocardiogram to check for damage to the heart muscle. The information gleaned from these tests helps the doctors decide if you had a heart attack or if something else is causing your health problem.
If you did indeed have a heart attack, please follow the physician’s directions for recovering. If your heart is fine and the incident was a false alarm, I still recommend that you follow a heart-healthy diet; engage in regular, moderate exercise; get 7 to 8 hours of deep sleep nightly; and take appropriate supplements. For your convenience, I’ve created two products that are specifically designed to protect your heart from everyday damage and provide it with vitally important essential fatty acids that are so lacking in our diets.
Finally, here’s one last suggestion that may save your life: Don’t skimp on sleep during the Christmas holidays. Getting too little rest can impair your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to colds. And a new study shows that people suffering from the common cold are nearly twice as likely to suffer a heart attack. Why? Colds cause inflammation, which is a risk factor for heart disease. If you do come down with a cold, I strongly suggest taking curcumin supplements for the anti-inflammatory benefits.
The Christmas holidays are a chance to celebrate the people and things we hold dear. But that shouldn’t mean compromising your health and well-being. Simply paying attention to what your body is trying to tell you can make all the difference in the world.