Here's Why Cold Weather Is Making Heart Disease Worse

portrait of older woman in snow gear

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Key Takeaways

  • Cold weather can increase someone’s chance of heart complications, like heart disease.
  • Before threatening the heart, cold weather can cause blood vessels to constrict, leading to muscle spasms or cutting off circulation.

Increasingly extreme winters may be particularly hard on the heart.

A 16-year analysis in Europe found that cold weather can increase risks for cardiovascular diseases, hospitalization, and deaths.

The analysis reviewed data 2.28 million adults from 1994 to 2010, and revealed that a drop in 10 degrees Celsius led to a 19% rise in death risk from cardiovascular disease. The adults in the review ranged from age 49 to 71; some had heart disease while others did not.

“Climate change is leading to a rise in the average global temperature but also extreme cold in some regions,” study author Stefan Agewall, MD, PhD, professor at the University of Oslo in Norway, said in a press release. 

He added that the research may help identify people who are most vulnerable to extreme weather. Among those most at-risk for cold weather-induced diseases were men living in areas with low socioeconomic status, and in women older than 65, according to the study.

“We can all check the news for extreme heat and cold alerts and follow safety tips from local authorities,” Agewall said.

How Does the Cold Impact Your Heart?

Nicole Weinberg, MD, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, who was not affiliated with the study, told Verywell that extreme cold temperatures can lead to vasoconstriction, which can cause blood vessels to narrow or clamp down. As a result, oxygenated blood may be unable to flow properly, causing pain, cramping, or discoloration of the fingers or toes if circulation is cut off.

Extreme heat, in contrast, can lead to vasodilation, which can increase blood flow. When this happens, people may experience low blood pressure, or blood pooling. Of the two complications, vasoconstriction from the cold can be more immediately damaging, Weinberg said.

“Decreased blood flow to an organ is probably going to be more acutely damaging to somebody because you can have a spasm that causes tissue death or a heart attack,” she explained.

People who live in areas that experience particularly cold seasons, like the east coast of the U.S., may be more at risk for severe consequences than those in warmer environments. People who lack cold weather-appropriate clothing or shelter are likewise more vulnerable.

“If you just don't have the access to warmth and blankets or things like that, your heart can create arrhythmias associated with how your body is dealing with that," Weinberg said. "You can die from it."

The good news is there are warning signs before a traumatic event occurs. Concerning degrees of vasoconstriction often result in severe pain and color changes in the body—extremities, for example, may turn white before turning purple or blue.

“Usually, that's something where you would want to warm the hands or get inside so that it doesn't escalate any further,” Weinberg said.

People who do not have severe pain may be experiencing a less severe side effect from the weather, and may be able to resolve the situation on their own by warming up. However, it is important to mention any heart-related concerns to a medical practitioner.

1 Source
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  1. European Society of Cardiology. Researchers warn of potential threat to heart health from extreme weather. August 26, 2022.

By Claire Wolters
Claire Wolters is a staff reporter covering health news for Verywell. She is most passionate about stories that cover real issues and spark change.