“No warmth could warm no wintry weather chill him,” Charles Dickens describes Scrooge. During the holidays, having a cold heart is a popular metaphor for lacking compassion and a loving spirit. Like so many, this metaphor contains an element of truth. Studies have revealed that cold weather affects our physical hearts and can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attack.
Heart Health in Winter
A study in JAMA Cardiology showed that certain factors associated with cold weather resulted in an increased incidence of heart attack. The study revealed that for each 13.5°F above freezing, the risk went down 2.8%. There are many possible reasons why cold weather is a big culprit, and many of these stem from the reduced oxygen levels of higher altitudes where colder temperatures are customary. The challenge of reduced oxygen supply to the heart and greater oxygen need from the heart creates a perfect storm for problems. This can happen because of overexertion, cold exposure, or overheating. Winter weather can cause overexertion because of shoveling, pushing cars out of snow, and walking against strong winds. These activities require the heart to work harder to keep up.
Likewise, cold weather can cause blood vessels to constrict, which is especially problematic for people prone to blood clots. This also puts increased pressure on the heart to supply blood and oxygen to the rest of the body. It seems strange that overheating would be a concern during cold weather, but it is a risk during physical activity, specifically straining physical activity. You likely wear heavy layers outside, and you may not notice your rising body temperature if the air is cold on your exposed face. When the body overheats, it needs to release the excess heat. When that release is inhibited by clothing, the blood vessels can dilate and lower blood pressure, which can cause blood supply to drop. Other outside factors like influenza also increase during cold weather seasons, which can cause fever and dehydration, both of which are hard on the heart.
Heart Health in General
It should be noted that the increased risks that come with cold weather are significantly higher for people already at risk for a heart attack. People at higher risk for coronary heart disease are age 65 and older, male, who have a family history of heart disease. Other factors like smoking, high cholesterol, inactivity, and obesity also increase a person’s risk of heart attack. Diabetes, stress, and alcohol use have also been shown to contribute to heart problems. Obviously, you can’t do anything about age, gender, or family history, but taking steps to improve the other areas can reduce your overall risk, even if you have some of these inherent risks.
Two of the best ways to combat the controllable risks listed above are diet and exercise. A diet high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals will help to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and contribute to healthy weight. Vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and fruit should make up the bulk of your daily calories. Avoid red meat, and replace it with fish and poultry. Reduce or completely eliminate sugar and alcohol for best results. Studies are showing more and more that taking steps to control stress can have a positive impact on a person’s overall health, including the heart. Relaxation techniques, counseling, and building a network of support are all ways to help with stress.
Exercising has a physiological effect on stress by producing chemicals called endorphins, which help the brain control pain and improve sleep! There is also a direct link between physical activity and heart health. Activity helps almost every single listed risk factor, including the increased risk of cold weather. In fact, even if you live in a cold climate where heart attacks occur more frequently, if you are physically active, you will greatly lower your risk regardless of the weather. For more information on heart health and help lowering your risk of heart attack, visit us at The Woman’s Clinic. Warm your heart this holiday season, and don’t be a Scrooge; schedule an appointment online at our Madison or Jackson location.