Why Heart Attacks Spike During the Holidays

It's been well documented that deaths from heart-related illnesses spike during the holiday season, but the reason why has not been as clear. There's the added element of cold and flu season to consider, and with multiple factors at play, research has not clearly proven a specific cause.

Despite the lack of definitive causation, correlation has been observed for decades. One study published in the American Heart Journal in 1978 dubbed this phenomenon "holiday heart syndrome," noting the increase in cardiac hospitalizations following Christmas and New Year's Eve. The study described holiday heart syndrome as the prevalence of cardiac rhythm disorders like atrial fibrillation and attributed it to binge drinking during the holidays.

"Episodes usually followed heavy weekend or holiday sprees, resulting in hospitalization between Sunday and Tuesday or in proximity to the year-end holidays, a relationship not observed in other alcohol-associated illnesses," the study abstract says.

Research has confirmed this correlation since that original study, as recently as 2018. A study published in the British Medical Journal that year found that heart attack risk spiked on holidays like Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day, in addition to large sporting events and other national holidays. During the Christmas and New Year's holidays, that risk went up 15 percent.

Because there are so many possible reasons for this correlation, in 2016 one group of researchers from the University of Melbourne set out to eliminate at least one element: cold and flu season. Based on a previous study in the U.S., they  on populations in New Zealand, where the Christmas season falls in the summer.

The team found that deaths from heart disease still increased during the holiday season even without the element of weather to contend with.

A Perfect Storm

Aside from lights and gifts, holiday cheer typically comes in the form of rich foods and alcohol. Add in a side of stress from hosting family, traveling, or finances, and you've got a perfect storm for people who have heart disease. It's no surprise, then, that the prevalence of heart attacks increases during the holiday season.

A Swedish study quoted in an article from Baptist Health South Florida observed that "in comparison to the two weeks before and after Christmas, heart-attack risks were 37 percent higher on Christmas Eve, 20 percent higher on New Year's Day, and 15 percent higher on Christmas Day."

Though eating rich foods can certainly affect your heart health, heavy alcohol consumption is one of the greatest risk factors for "holiday heart syndrome."

Why does alcohol consumption affect the heart?

It's widely understood that binge drinking is detrimental to heart health; even one binge drinking session can cause an arrhythmia. However, the exact explanation for alcohol's effect on the heart remains unknown. Heavy alcohol consumption certainly affects the body in many ways, but the exact mechanism affecting heart health is not well understood.

In addition to arrhythmias, alcohol consumption has been linked to a number of heart-related issues, including cardiomyopathy, a disorder that reduces the heart's ability to effectively pump blood.

"You can actually drink your heart muscle into a weakened state when you consume heavily (four to five drinks a day over several years)," writes a cardiologist for Heart and Stroke.

Binge drinking also leads to higher blood pressure and high calorie consumption, which can lead to weight gain that negatively affects your heart.

Preventing "Holiday Heart Syndrome"

So how do we prevent that perfect storm from causing lasting damage?

  • Keep an eye on your alcohol consumption.
    A little indulgence is fine, but watching alcohol consumption will be the most proactive thing you can do to lower your risk of increased heart problems during the holidays.
    If you feel a flutter in your chest or an increased heart rate while drinking, it's best to cut yourself off for the night. The good news is, even if you do experience holiday heart syndrome following a bout of binge drinking, it typically does not sustain long-term and resolves on its own after you stop drinking.
    Be sure to keep an eye on these triggers if you have heart disease or are at risk for heart disease. If you're having trouble cutting back on alcohol or feel like your consumption is interfering with your life, reach out to your doctor or your local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • Ask for help with holiday tasks.
    There are several ways you can cut back on holiday stress and financial strain, especially if you think outside the box. Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it — or even if you don't! You'd be surprised how willing people are to pitch in, bring a dish, organize a gift exchange, or host a meal. Shaking things up can be hard at first, but it can be a great way to make new memories. Minimize financial strain and lower your stress level by drawing names this year instead of buying gifts for everyone, or planning to take a family trip next summer instead of exchanging gifts.
  • Slow down and stay healthy.
    Health is especially important to prioritize this year as we continue to contend with COVID-19, especially if you already have health conditions like heart disease. Though the holiday season may look different in 2020, if we get creative, it could be the start of some new traditions — and even a slowing down that could bring about less stressful holiday experiences in the future. Try gift exchanges by a fire outdoors, driving around to see Christmas lights with cozy blankets and hot chocolate, a special at-home Christmas Eve service...maybe even a Christmas dance recital via Zoom that grandparents from across the country can attend. We may not be able to gather in large groups beside the tree, but there are so many ways we can create new, unique memories together this season.

Stay Informed About Your Heart Health

Every 40 seconds, someone in the U.S. has a heart attack. Every 37 seconds, a person dies from cardiovascular disease. With statistics like these, it's not entirely surprising that heart disease is the leading cause of death in American adults across nearly every race and ethnicity. Almost half of all adult Americans have some form of cardiovascular disease (including high blood pressure), so it is more important than ever to be aware of the signs and symptoms and take what measures we can to lower our risk of cardiac events.

Most heart disease is preventable through a healthy lifestyle, but if you exhibit any of these risk factors, consider getting screened for heart disease like carotid artery disease (CAD) or peripheral artery disease (PAD):

  • Age 55+
  • High blood pressure
  • Family history of heart disease or stroke
  • Smoking, past or present
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Excessive drinking

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a type of arrhythmia in which the upper chambers of the heart do not beat at a regular pace, causing blood to pool in the heart and increasing the risk of stroke. AFib itself is not harmful, but people with AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke, which is life-threatening. It's a good idea to get screened if you exhibit these risk factors:

  • Age 50+
  • Coronary heart disease, heart defects, or heart failure
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Obesity
  • Rheumatic heart disease or pericarditis
  • Diabetes or metabolic syndrome
  • Lung disease or kidney disease
  • Sleep apnea
  • Family history of AFib

Life Line Screening provides quick, painless screenings for atrial fibrillation, carotid artery disease, peripheral artery disease, and more. Schedule a screening today to arm yourself with knowledge about your own health so you can be better equipped to live the life you want to live. If you have any questions about screenings or heart health, please give us a call at 866.579.5074. We would love to help.

Our $149 Screening Package will assess your risk for Stroke and Cardiovascular disease.

Screening package includes

Carotid Artery Disease
Peripheral Artery Disease
Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm (AAA)
Atrial Fibrillation
Osteoporosis

Learn more or schedule a screening today at lifelinescreening.com — or give us a call at 866.579.5074. We'd love to help.

References

"Why Heart Attacks Spike at Christmas" Alice Park, TIME, 2016.

"Arrhythmias and the 'Holiday Heart': Alcohol associated cardiac rhythm disorders." Phillip O. Edinger, et al., American Heart Journal, May 1978.

"Christmas, national holidays, sport events, and time factors as triggers of acute myocardial infarction: SWEDEHEART observational study 1998-2013." British Medical Journal, 2018.

"Ask a Cardiologist: Alcohol and Heart Health." Heart & Stroke.

"Holiday Heart Attacks: What You Need to Know." Baptist Health South Florida, December 2019.

"Heart Disease Facts." Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020.

Topics:

Holiday heart syndrome, holiday heart attack, binge drinking, holiday drinking

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