Learn Why December Heart Attacks Are the Most Deadly

And It's Important for You to Know Why

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Several medical studies now show pretty convincingly that Americans who have heart attacks around the holidays — specifically, the time between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day — are more likely to die than people who have heart attacks at other times of the year.

The increase in cardiac mortality during the holidays is not huge — about 5% — but it is statistically significant, and it has been confirmed now in several large population studies. Several investigators have tried to figure out why this is the case, and theories abound. They include:

  • The onset of cold weather as winter begins
  • Reduced hospital staffing during the holidays
  • Increased depression and emotional stress
  • Overindulgence of fatty foods and alcohol
  • Delay in seeking medical attention

The REAL Reason

Nobody can prove today exactly why heart attack mortality increases during the holidays. Certainly all of the factors listed here likely play at least some role. 

But likely, not equivalent roles. I have taken the liberty of ordering the above list of potential causes in ascending order of importance, from least likely to most likely:

Is cold weather really the explanation? It seems unlikely. Higher heart attack death rates during the holidays are just as prevalent in the southern, warmer states as they are in northern states.

Similarly, reduced hospital staffing may not be as important an explanation as it may seem. Investigators who have formally assessed the question have not been able to find any drop-off in the speed or the quality of care when a patient is admitted with a heart attack in December, as compared to any other time of year.

Depression, which is prominent during the holidays — especially among older people for whom the holidays can invoke a sense of loss for happier times, or for loved ones who are no longer present — is a known risk factor for heart attacks, and likely explains at least some of the increased risk. The added stress of the holiday season may also contribute to some degree.

Certain types of dietary indiscretions may help to trigger heart attacks. Some evidence indicates that eating a meal extremely high in saturated fats might help to trigger plaque rupture in diseased coronary arteries. Overindulging in salt might create excess cardiac stress in people with hypertension or heart failure. And loading up on alcohol can trigger "holiday heart" — that is, the onset of atrial fibrillation, which, in turn, could trigger a heart attack in someone with critical coronary artery disease.

Common sense suggests that simple denial plays a very large role in explaining why heart attacks are deadlier around the holidays. People who develop chest pain or other symptoms during the holidays are likely to try just wishing the symptoms away, or attributing them to some other cause (overeating, stress, etc.,) since, how can it be a heart attack? It's Christmas!

Ignoring Your Symptoms Can Be Deadly

People who talk themselves into ignoring potentially dangerous cardiac symptoms tend to do so until the symptoms escalate to the point where they simply can’t be ignored any more. By that time, if it actually is a heart attack, they will tend to arrive in the hospital much later than they would have at other times of the year. This delay can be deadly.

When you are having a heart attack, time is of the essence. A delay of a few minutes can make the difference between surviving with a healthy heart, surviving with a very damaged heart — or dying. Any physician who has taken care of patients with heart attacks over the holidays will tell you that at that time of year people tend to try "riding it out," so as not to ruin the season for their family and friends. 

By the time they seek help, they are a lot sicker than they would have been if they had sought medical help right away. 

Be A Survivor, Not a Stoic

You are not doing anyone a favor by trying to ride out symptoms that might be due to a heart attack, not even during the holidays. As it happens, having to attend a funeral during the holidays tends to be at least as disruptive to family and friends as having to call 911.

Just because it's the holidays doesn't mean you can't be having a heart attack. If you have the symptoms, get immediate medical care. Know how to tell you that might be having a heart attack, and if you have any of these symptoms, speak up.

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Article Sources
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