December 26, 2013

Vanderbilt doctors warn against holiday heart attack spike

Studies have indicated that death rates from heart attacks and stroke as well as non-heart-related causes spike during the holiday season.

“It is not uncommon to see a heavier patient volume in the hospital during the Christmas and New Year’s period of time. Some years that’s true, but some years it’s quiet,” said cardiologist Keith Churchwell, M.D., chief medical officer and executive director of the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute.

A national database with detailed information on the 53 million deaths that occurred in the United States between 1973 and 2001 shows that deaths from heart disease peak in December/January, with spikes on Christmas and New Year’s Day, according to a University of California at San Diego study.

Churchwell said there are several possible reasons for the spike. People who are having symptoms of heart trouble prior to the holiday season tend to delay going to the doctor or view the holidays as a reason to take a break from their exercise and diet programs, he said.

Also, it is not uncommon for people to drink more alcohol at the holidays, which can contribute to what is known as “holiday heart syndrome.”

“Alcohol has a toxic effect on the heart muscle in a number of different ways, but in particular it can lead to an irritation of the heart muscle,” Churchwell said.  “This can lead to atrial fibrillation – an abnormal heart rhythm that is the classic finding of holiday heart.”

And with the hectic nature of the holiday season, it’s easy to miss medication doses, which can lead to acute coronary trouble. Churchwell emphasizes the importance of remembering to take medications with you, such as high blood pressure pills and blood thinners, if you travel out of town for the holidays.

He said his cardiology practice sees an increase in phone calls from patients immediately after the holidays.

“After Jan. 1 we always get a bit of bolus of patients with additional complications who have been more naughty than nice over the holiday period,” Churchwell said. “They tend to wait until after the holiday time with their issues, for example, they’re out of their medication so their blood pressure is elevated; they’ve been having shortness of breath or chest discomfort or swelling due to too much sodium.”

Churchwell advises his patients to enjoy the holidays, but to try to integrate the heart healthy habits they have in place with the activities of the holidays. If you walk, walk with your family, and then try to get back to a regular exercise and diet routine after the holidays.