Winterizing Your Heart Could Save Your Life

Winter weather makes your heart work harder. If you’re an older adult or live with a heart condition, your risk is higher for heart problems during winter. There are simple ways to winterize your heart and reduce your risk of cardiac problems as it gets colder outside.

Key takeaways:
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    Heart attacks and other cardiac problems increase during winter months.
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    Older adults and those with chronic health issues are at the highest risk for worsening cardiac problems during winter.
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    Factors like cold air and changes in pressure, humidity, wind, and pollution are part of the problem.
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    A mixture of other issues like fitness levels, changes in activity, mental health, dehydration, and infections contribute to a perfect winter storm.
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    Know your risks and safety tips before shoveling snow, throwing snowballs, or taking that ski trip.

Studies and healthcare providers worldwide agree that winter weather increases the risk of cardiac problems. With heart disease as the world’s top killer, winter prevention is a global task.

Just yesterday, I sat in the passenger seat of our ambulance with lights and sirens blaring as we drove to a local ski resort. In snow and ice, we raced to respond to a call for an older skier with a sudden heart attack.

This situation isn’t unusual for first responders like myself.

Winter weather and activities make your cardiovascular system work harder. Younger and healthier hearts face the extra work without trouble, but older or weaker hearts may lack the strength and reserve.

Know winter risks and safety tips to protect your heart as the cold settles in.

Why do more heart attacks occur in the winter?

Winter weather presents a mixture of cold air and changes in pressure, humidity, wind, and pollution. But scientists aren’t sure which environmental factors are the biggest culprits.

Colder temperatures are certainly a significant factor. When you’re cold, your heart works harder to keep you warm. Your blood pressure increases, and your blood vessels narrow to conserve heat.

Studies suggest your cholesterol levels may be higher in the winter, and blood clots may form more quickly too. People who move less during the winter face a higher risk of dangerous blood clots throughout their body, including their heart.

These changes in the body are like a sudden workout for the heart. The extra work is harder for anyone with a known heart condition such as heart failure, an irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, and blocked or hardened arteries (atherosclerosis).

Research also suggests that the weather isn’t the only risk during the winter. Age, fitness, diet, hydration, infections, and mental wellness impact cardiac health too.

These factors are more difficult to manage during the holiday season, and winter activities like skiing and snow shoveling add to the workload.

Winter can be a perfect storm that stresses the heart.

Be heart smart during the winter

Being heart smart starts with knowing your personal risks.

If you’re over 65 years old or have a heart condition, your risk is higher than younger adults.

However, if you don’t exercise, eat a heart-healthy diet, and are chronically dehydrated, you’re at risk too, even if you’re younger than 65.

Despite individual risks, these heart smart tips are for everyone facing winter weather.

Stay warm

To reduce your heart’s workload. Wearing warm clothes gives every heart a break. Older adults lose body heat faster so staying warm is even more crucial. Simple items like warm hats, long underwear, gloves, and wool socks may keep you out of the hospital.

Protect yourself from infections

Protect yourself from the flu and other infections. You can boost your immune system with good sleep, a healthy diet, hydration, immune-boosting vitamins, and perhaps the flu shot.

Stay hydrated

Studies show that dehydration stresses the heart. A good rule of thumb is to drink a glass of water every hour during the day. Water needs vary with lifestyles and medical situations. Consult your doctor about your individual needs.

Vitamin D

Be sure your vitamin D levels are adequate. Studies show vitamin D is essential to cardiovascular health. Still, most people in the United States, Europe, and the United Kingdom face a vitamin D deficiency.

Limit alcohol

Alcoholic drinks can alter your body heat. It may also affect your judgment, causing you not to dress warmly enough or stay hydrated.

Schedule a free heart risk assessment

Many local clinics and hospitals offer free heart health screenings. Follow the screening with a visit to your doctor for a cardiac check-up.

Address mental and emotional stress

Emotional and mental health challenges are risk factors for cardiac issues. The winter holiday season often provokes mental struggles. Know your emotional stressors and how to address them. Talk with a loved one and a therapist about your mental health wellness whenever you need to.

Heart medications

Take your heart medications. Prescriptions from your doctor help protect your heart from the stress of winter.

Be heart smart before you shovel

Shoveling is a common activity that sends people to the emergency department. For many, shoveling is a hurried and urgent task.

If you don’t exercise much or have a cardiac condition, this sudden workout for the heart can be deadly.

However, shoveling snow may be a great winter exercise if you're careful or in good cardiac condition.

To protect your heart, use these tips before you shovel.

  • Get the green light from your primary care physician or cardiologist. You may be an older adult, but if you have great cardiac fitness, you may not be too old to shovel or ski.
  • Dress warmly.
  • Give your heart and body a quick warm-up before you head outside by swinging your arms or walking in place for at least one minute.
  • If possible, set aside time to take it slow and don’t shovel to the point of exhaustion.
  • Try shoveling snow when it's fresh and powdery.
  • Push the snow instead of lifting it.
  • Consider asking or paying a younger person to shovel for you.
  • If you have any heart attack symptoms, stop immediately and call for emergency medical services.

You can use these recommendations for other winter activities like skiing and snowshoeing.

Signs of a heart attack

A heart attack could occur suddenly when you shovel snow. Or you may feel warning signs of a heart attack over a few days or weeks before or after shoveling.

Heart attack symptoms during or after shoveling may include:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Chest pain that feels like pressure, tightness, aching, or squeezing.
  • Pain or discomfort spreading from your chest to your shoulder, arm, neck, jaw, back, or even the upper belly.
  • Cold sweat.
  • Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness.
  • Fatigue.
  • Heartburn or indigestion nausea.
  • Nausea.
  • Sense of doom.

Some of these symptoms may also occur with other heart conditions like heart failure and irregular heart rhythms.

Be heart smart all year

The best way to prevent heart trouble in the winter is to be heart smart all year.

Studies show many lifestyle choices can improve your cardiac health even if cardiac disease runs in your family. To protect your heart, consider improving your overall wellness with these steps.

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