Cold Weather and Cardiovascular Disease: Know the Risks

By Sajjad A. Sabir, MD

The increase in the number of cardiovascular events in the winter months has many contributing factors and theories. It is important to know how the cold weather can affect your heart, particularly for those with cardiovascular disease.

During the winter months, the decrease in daylight hours can change hormone cortisol, which can increase your risk for a cardiac event. Cold temperatures can cause your arteries to constrict, thereby restricting blood flow and reducing oxygen-rich blood to the heart. This is further compounded by the fact that your heart consumes more oxygen as it works harder to maintain body heat.

A recent study of 107,090 people from several European countries reveals that heart risk factors such as high blood pressure, cholesterol and waist circumference increase more in winter months than the rest of the year. The reason for these changes is not entirely clear. Some of these may be due to poor eating and lack of exercise during the winter. On the other hand, extreme physical activity can also increase risk of heart attacks. For instance, snow shoveling will not lead to any heart problems in most people. However, the risk of heart attack may increase for those in poor physical condition or with existing heart disease. The workload on the heart is increased from the combined effect of cold temperatures and sudden exertion. Talk to your doctor about what your heart disease risk factors are.

Moderation in the winter months is key to avoiding heart problems and helping your body adjust to the seasonal changes. Sudden exertion should be avoided. Checking your pulse before and during shoveling or any other physical activity can help you gauge just how hard you are working. Taking short breaks during snow shoveling will give your body a chance to adjust. Avoiding hypothermia (drop in body temperature) by dressing in layers is also crucial as drop in body temperature can lead to health problems. The trapped air between layers forms a protective insulation. Also avoid windy and damp weather conditions, as both can cause more rapid body heat loss than being at the same temperature in less windy and drier conditions. Refrain from alcohol before going outdoors. The expansion of the blood vessels in the skin gives an initial feeling of warmth, but the heat is then taken away from the body’s vital organs.

Winter is also flu season. Getting a flu vaccine to guard against influenza lowers the risk of heart attack, particularly in the elderly and in people with heart disease.

Cold weather does not mean you have to stop living an active life and being outside. The key to reducing cardiovascular risk is to take everything in moderation during the winter months and upcoming holiday season. Watch what you eat and drink, dress in layers if exercising or shoveling snow, take regular breaks to check your heart rate, and try to avoid the stresses that come with holiday preparations. Most importantly, always check with your health care professional if you experience any chest pain, shortness of breath or other medical concern to make sure you are on the right treatment and are not over-stressing you system.

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