Avoiding Winter Heart Attacks

By Philip R. Liebson, MD

The snow is falling. The winter winds are raging, you are over 50 years of age and you have to shovel the driveway. You may be aware that heart attacks are increased in winter, almost twice the rate as at other seasons. Why and how can you protect yourself?

The reason for the increase in heart attacks involves the cold weather primarily, although snow shoveling helps. Cold weather causes the arteries to constrict, increasing the work of the heart by raising the blood pressure. When the arteries have arteriosclerotic plaque, this decreases blood flow even more. Also, cold causes the heart rate to increase, making the work of the heart even greater. Finally, lifting snow with your shovel is an isometric exercise adding to the work of the heart by an increase in blood pressure.

If you want to shovel snow early in the morning, beware! This is the time of day when heart attacks are greatest, because of the surge of adrenaline that occurs around the time of awakening. With the decreased daylight hours there is also a tendency for depressed mood which can also affect the function of the heart.

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