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Is Christmas a risk factor for heart disease?

Is Christmas a risk factor for heart disease?
ER visits spike right after Christmas day, writes Dr. Scott Lear.

The food, drinks and desserts, lots of parties, meeting with family and friends. What’s not to like about the Christmas holidays?

For some, though, this can be the deadliest time of year. Over the Christmas holidays the number of heart diseases and heart-related deaths increase by approximately 5%. Some of this increase may be due to the winter season, as heart attacks and hospitalizations are greater after a snowfall and also higher in colder weather. But a study in New Zealand found an increased in heart-related deaths when Christmas happens in the summer. This would suggest it’s not just the weather.

It should come as no surprise that many of us put off seeking care on big holidays. Who wants to make a run to the hospital when the family is coming over for Christmas dinner? We might tell ourselves that if it’s still there the next day, I’ll go then.

For things like colds or minor aches that might be fine, but for a heart attack or stroke, getting immediate and timely care is essential Not doing so can make things worse and increase the chances of complications. My ER colleagues tell me they see a spike in visits in the days after Christmas as people put off going in on Christmas Day. In fact, it may be as high as a 33% increase in heart conditions in the ER.

Another contributor is that hospitals, while open during the holidays, are not staffed to the same levels as any other day and it may be more challenging to get specialist care or there may be a delay in getting diagnostic tests. Both of which could delay getting treated in a timely manner.

Once discharged from hospital, getting follow-up care can also be a challenge and increase the likelihood of having to get readmitted to the hospital. This still could be due to some patients delaying seeking care during this time or it could be due to having a hard time seeing a physician who might also be on holidays.

However, it would be remiss to ignore the possible lifestyle effects that happen over the holidays. While it is a festive time of year, many people experience greater levels of stress over the holidays. For people who are alone, it could be a more acute reminder of their social isolation. For others, it could be added financial stress, an increase in things to do (on top of our regular work and domestic duties) or even the traditional family gathering when old arguments and tensions arise.

We may pressure ourselves to have the picture-perfect Christmas we see on TV, but this may never be a reality. When our expectations aren’t met, it can result in anxiety and frustration, and if these feelings are acted on, it can further increase stress. Managing stress and even saying ‘no’ to events and obligations over the holidays may be a good plan going into the holidays to help ensure you enjoy your time.

It’s not just the stress that can lead to a heart attack over the holidays, it can also be what and how much you eat. I’m not just talking about the fact that some people may gain a few pounds over the holidays. That in itself may not be a direct cause of a heart attack (although repeated weight gain will increase one’s risk for heart disease).

The Christmas holidays bring with them big meals rich in fatty and sugary foods, often accompanied with alcohol. For some, eating a Christmas meal of 2000 to 5000 calories (or 1 to 2 regular days’ worth of food) may not be unheard of. These big meals can increase risk for heart attack because it puts a stress on our body to breakdown the foods by increasing blood pressure and fats in the blood. We often feel this as being tired from a big meal as our body is working on digesting. Trying to avoid, or limit having those big meals may be a heart healthy action.

By now you probably think that the Grinch has a better outlook on Christmas than I do. For many of us, Christmas will pass with great memories and at worst some minor indigestion. It’s a time to be merry and relax, and recharge ourselves. As with anything, some simple planning can help ensure the holiday time is one without any excess stress and health problems. However, if you do feel unwell, do yourself, and your family and friends a favour and get it checked out.

Dr. Scott Lear is a Professor of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University and holds the Pfizer/Heart and Stroke Foundation Chair in Cardiovascular Prevention Research at St. Paul’s Hospital. 

This story originally appeared on Dr. Scott Lear’s blog, Feel Healthy With Dr. Scott Lear. Check it out and be sure to subscribe for more content.

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