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How cold weather impacts your heart

Paoli Hospital February 11, 2019 Heart Health

Cold weather can make your joints hurt, take your breath away and dry your skin. But did you know it can also put your heart at risk?

A 2017 study was the first of its kind to examine the connection between weather and heart failure deaths in the United States. The results found that people with heart failure are more likely to be hospitalized and die during winter months.

This might come as a surprise. After all, wouldn’t hot summer temperatures and time outside put the heart in more jeopardy? Not necessarily.

“A combination of weather and lifestyle-related factors contribute to these statistics,” explains Matthew Sewell, MD, Lankenau Heart Institute cardiologist at Paoli Hospital, part of Main Line Health. “It’s not that one season is necessarily more dangerous for your heart than another, but cold weather presents some unique risks you should be aware of, particularly if you have a history of heart problems.”

These include:

Really, really cold temperatures

When you’re cold, your blood vessels narrow to retain body heat. This process helps keep your body warm, but this change in resistance in the arteries of the heart can disrupt vulnerable plaque –the first steps in a heart attack.

Keep in mind that, in most cases, you won’t be outside long enough for cold weather to completely restrict blood flow. But if you’re spending time outdoors and also have a history of health issues, these factors together may be enough to put your heart at risk.

If you’re going to be outside for an extended period of time—say, camping or at an outdoor sporting event—on a particularly chilly day, take frequent breaks and wear several layers. In freezing weather, it doesn’t take long for frostbite or hypothermia to arrive. In fact, according to the American Heart Association, it’s heart failure (not frostbite!) that is the most common cause of death among people who have severe hypothermia.

If you must go outside during a particularly cold, windy or snowy day, make sure you’re wearing several layers of clothing to prevent your body from losing heat. Take frequent breaks to go inside and warm up, if possible. Hydration is also key, as you core heats up with motion and exercise, and you can become dehydrated if you are not careful!

A weakened immune system

Several studies have found a link between the flu and your heart attack risk, with a 2018 study determining that a person is six times more likely to have a heart attack in the first week after a flu diagnosis. The risk can be even higher for older adults and/or anyone who has a history of cardiac events.

What’s the reason for the link between these two (seemingly unrelated) events?

“Having the flu puts a great deal of stress on our bodies,” explains Dr. Sewell. “There’s more inflammation in the body as it works to heal itself, and oxygen and blood pressure rates drop. The confluence of all of these factors make a person more susceptible to blood clots and associated cardiac issues.”

The way to protect yourself? The flu vaccine, of course. Make sure you’re being especially diligent about hygiene, too, by washing your hands regularly and thoroughly with soap and warm water. If you’re over age 65, talk to your doctor about other vaccines you may need, too.

Overexerting yourself

Consider the outdoor activities you’re likely doing in winter: shoveling heavy, wet snow; hanging or taking down holiday decorations; climbing up a snowy hill for winter skiing or sledding. Between cold temperatures and strenuous physical activity, you could be putting a heavy burden on your heart.

Take it slow during wintry days. If you don’t have to go outside, don’t. If you can find someone to help you complete outdoor tasks or do them for you, ask for help.

You overdid it on holiday treats

Between holiday menus, comfort food cravings and a desire to stay inside and avoid the gym, it’s easy to gain weight during winter. But this does more than add extra inches to your waistline; it also means more plaque build-up in your arteries and harder work for your heart. These factors and that extra stress can lead to a heart attack.

You don’t have to deprive yourself of your favorite seasonal treats, but commit to staying active throughout the winter and trying lighter versions of your favorite recipes.

Stay heart-aware all year long

Risks like these are more common during winter, but Dr. Sewell reminds people not to neglect the signs of a heart attack at any time of year. “Cardiac events can happen during any season. It’s important to familiarize yourself with the common signs of a heart attack so that you can respond quickly if you notice them in yourself or someone nearby.”