Holidays Increase the Risks of Heart Attacks and Strokes
By Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.
"The winter holiday season is a time of joy and merriment, filled with laughter and cheer. However, it is also a time that can jeopardize our health," warns professional fiduciary and certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "Medical professionals have found that the holiday season can be a serious threat to our health, with studies revealing that more people die from heart attacks during this time than any other time of the year. In fact, research has shown that cardiac death is almost 5% higher during the holidays compared to the rest of the year, and a seasonal trend is also evident with strokes, as more occur between November and February than at any other time of the year."
There is no simple explanation for this, as complex and multifaceted reasons exist for these medical issues to occur. For instance, during the holiday season, our daily routines are often disrupted, leading us to indulge in more food and drink while exercising and relaxing less. Another factor is that we may not be getting enough sleep or may be experiencing increased levels of stress, which can further exacerbate the risk of a heart attack and stroke -- and there are more, which we will look at a bit later in this blog. Knowing this, it is essential to be mindful of our health and take steps to mitigate these risks during the winter holiday season.
"Many also ignore the warning signs that our bodies give us or put off visiting the doctor until after the new year, thinking that it can wait, but all these factors together can contribute to an increased risk of a deadly cardiac event or stroke," Attorney Connelly continued. "It's vital to recognize these risk factors and take necessary precautions to protect our heart health. By being aware of our habits and taking steps to reduce stress, get enough rest, and maintain a healthy diet and exercise routine, we can enjoy the holiday season while keeping our health in check."
According to Attorney Connelly, the holiday season can be a time of high stress for many people due to a variety of factors. One significant cause of stress is the need to interact with family members, which can be challenging and emotionally taxing for some individuals. Also, making travel arrangements can be stressful, especially if there are logistical issues or unexpected delays.
In addition to these stressors, medical professionals have noted that winter weather can significantly impact our health. Breathing in cold air can cause constriction of blood vessels in the lungs, which can affect the coronary arteries. These are the first blood vessels downstream from the lungs, and constriction can lead to reduced blood flow to the heart and an increased risk of heart attack or other cardiovascular events.
Tips for Minimizing Cardiac Risk
Dr. Marc Eisenberg, an Associate Professor of Medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, has shared advice for people with heart-related conditions during the holiday season. See below:
Don’t ignore new symptoms: During the holidays, people tend to ignore symptoms like shortness of breath or leg swelling, thinking that they will see a doctor later. However, this procrastination can lead to emergencies and increase the likelihood of death en route to the hospital or the ER. According to Dr. Eisenberg, waiting too long to address symptoms can be fatal. He suggests that while you may not want to spoil anyone's holiday by going to the ER, it's better than collapsing during dessert.
If traveling, reduce your risk of clots: Prolonged sitting in a car or plane can increase the risk of blood clots forming in your legs. These clots can detach and travel to your lungs, leading to a pulmonary embolism, which can be life-threatening. To reduce your risk, take breaks during long flights, walk down the aisle, or move your feet while seated. When driving, stop at a rest stop or other safe area every hour to walk around. If you experience new leg pain or swelling, shortness of breath, or palpitations after arriving at your destination, seek immediate medical attention and ask for an ultrasound to rule out a blood clot. If a clot is detected, prompt treatment with blood thinners can save your life.
Try low-salt holiday recipes: "During the holiday season, from Thanksgiving through Christmas and Hannukah, the foods served are often high in sodium, which can be a huge problem," warns Dr. Eisenberg. Consuming too much sodium can lead to fluid retention and worsen high blood pressure. To avoid this, the American Heart Association suggests trying out their holiday recipe collection, which features low-sodium dishes like apple bread pudding and roasted turkey with butternut squash."
Limit alcohol: Doctors use the term "holiday heart" to describe the phenomenon where people drink excessively during events or gatherings, and then experience symptoms like dizziness, shortness of breath, or palpitations a few days later. Dr. Eisenberg explains that these symptoms are a delayed reaction to alcohol consumption and that they could lead to a stroke. In general, excessive alcohol consumption can raise a person's blood pressure, putting them at increased risk for heart attacks, strokes, aortic dissections (a tear in the aorta, which is the main artery leading away from the heart), and heart failure. Therefore, it is advised to limit alcohol intake during the holidays in order to avoid such risks.
Triple-check your meds: It's common to forget to pack daily medications such as blood pressure pills when traveling for the holidays. However, it's important to ensure you have all your necessary prescriptions. If you do happen to forget them, it's not wise to attempt to go without them. Skipping blood pressure medication for even a few days can cause "rebound high blood pressure," meaning your blood pressure might climb higher than before. In such a situation, it's best to contact your doctor so that they can arrange for a supply of your medication to be sent to a local pharmacy for the duration of your trip.
Use a blood pressure monitor: Blood pressure monitors are readily available at pharmacies. It is recommended to have one at home or while traveling, so that in case you feel unwell, you can check your blood pressure (remember to sit in a relaxed position for a few minutes before taking a reading and keep a record of the results). If the reading is significantly high (such as the top number above 180) or low (such as the top number below 100), especially if you are experiencing symptoms, please immediately go to the nearest urgent care or emergency room.
Check on aging parents: During the holidays, adult children often visit their aging parents, whom they may not have seen in a while. It is not uncommon for them to notice health issues that their parents may be experiencing, such as leg swelling or difficulty walking. If you notice any such problems, it is advisable to call your parent's doctor or covering doctor and explain what you are seeing. The doctor may not be aware of the issue, and your input could be valuable. You may also want to consider extending your visit to attend the doctor's appointment with your parent.
Relieve stress: The holiday season can be stressful due to various factors such as interacting with toxic family members, budget concerns, and other anxieties. This time of year is also known for the prevalence of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Stress and depression can also affect the heart, so it's crucial to take a deep breath and put things in perspective. According to Dr. Eisenberg, if you feel like you need additional support, it's recommended to seek help from a licensed therapist or other forms of support.
Get your healthcare up to date beforehand: As the holiday season approaches, it's important to prioritize your health. Make sure you've attended all your routine medical check-ups and screening tests. Also, don't forget to vaccinate against flu and other illnesses such as RSV (if eligible). This is especially important if you're planning to gather with elderly or young individuals.
Symptoms of a Heart Attack
"If you or someone you know experiences discomfort that sounds like a possible symptom of a heart attack, it's important to call 911 right away," said Attorney Connelly. "The symptoms of a heart attack commonly include chest pain, which usually occurs in the center of the chest and can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, or fullness."
The discomfort may come and go or linger for several minutes or more. Patients may also experience upper-body discomfort, such as pain in one or both arms, neck, jaw, back, or stomach. Shortness of breath may also occur, which can be accompanied by chest pain, but not always.
Other signs of a heart attack include nausea, lightheadedness, or breaking out in a cold sweat. During the holiday season, it's common for people to avoid speaking up about their symptoms or delay seeking medical attention because they don't want to interrupt the celebration. However, it's important to remember that seeking medical help could help you or a loved one celebrate another holiday next year. So, don't hesitate to get the medical help you need, no matter what.
Signs of a Stroke
An ischemic stroke happens when the blood supply to a part of the brain is blocked or reduced, which results in brain tissue not getting enough oxygen and nutrients. As a result, brain cells start to die within a few minutes. Another type of stroke is a hemorrhagic stroke, which occurs when a blood vessel in the brain leaks or bursts, causing bleeding in the brain and increasing pressure on brain cells, leading to their damage.
"A stroke is a medical emergency, and it's essential to seek medical treatment immediately," stressed Attorney Connelly. "Getting emergency medical help quickly can decrease brain damage and other stroke complications. If you or someone you're with is experiencing symptoms of a stroke, it's crucial to pay attention to the time the symptoms began. Some treatments are more effective when given soon after the stroke begins."
Stroke symptoms may include trouble speaking and understanding what others are saying, numbness, weakness, or paralysis in the face, arm, or leg, which often affects just one side of the body. The person may try to raise both arms over the head, and if one arm begins to fall, it may be a sign of a stroke. Additionally, one side of the mouth may droop when attempting to smile. Problems seeing in one or both eyes may occur suddenly, with blurred or blackened vision in one or both eyes or double vision. A sudden, severe headache may also be a symptom of a stroke, accompanied by vomiting, dizziness, and a change in consciousness. Finally, someone having a stroke may stumble or lose balance or coordination while walking.
Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately if you suspect someone is having a stroke. Do not wait to see if the symptoms stop, as every minute counts. The longer a stroke goes untreated, the higher the risk of brain damage and disability. If you are with someone who you suspect is having a stroke, keep a close eye on them while waiting for emergency assistance.
A Final Word
"Keep in mind that this time of year is characterized by an array of social gatherings, delicious meals, and fun-filled activities, which can make it easy to neglect our health," stated Attorney Connelly. "It's important that we take a few extra steps to prioritize our health during the holiday season. This can be achieved through mindful eating by choosing heart-healthy options, getting enough rest to avoid fatigue, and staying active to keep our hearts and bodies strong and in good condition. As the holiday season approaches, prioritize your well-being and safety. To avoid falling ill or becoming a statistic, make sure to stay alert and keep a watchful eye on any symptoms that may arise. Taking care of yourself and seeking medical attention if necessary can help ensure a happy and healthy holiday season."
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