Winterize your heart

If you’re at high risk for a heart attack, ask your doctor if you need to take extra care in the wintertime.

Depending on where you live, you may or may not need to prepare your home, car or garden for winter. But if you’re at high risk for heart disease, no matter where you live, you’ll want to prepare your heart.

“There’s clearly a seasonal variation in heart attacks and heart deaths,” says Richard Stein, MD, a spokesman for the American Heart Association. In every area of the country, he says, heart attacks are more common in the winter.

Though research hasn’t uncovered the exact reasons for this link, we do know about some steps that can help ensure a safe winter for your heart.

How cold costs your heart

If it gets cold where you live, winter temperatures can affect your heart. When your body is confronted with cold air, Dr. Stein says, your nervous system responds by increasing some hormone levels and narrowing arteries and veins.

These surging hormones and narrowed passages make your heart work harder. They also make it more likely that a buildup of plaque in an artery could break loose from the artery wall, which is often the first step toward a heart attack.

In addition, when you’re physically active in cold weather, your mind doesn’t perceive your level of exertion as well as it does in more temperate weather, Dr. Stein explains. This makes it easier to overexert yourself without realizing it, even during simple activities such as shoveling snow.

The infection connection

Even if you’re not in a cold climate, winter can still be cold and flu season. And there’s increasing evidence that lingering infections of any kind can increase your risk of heart attack, Dr. Stein says.

For decades, research has explored the role of infections in heart disease and heart attacks. Studies of people with gum disease, H. pylori (the bacteria that cause ulcers), Chlamydia pneumoniae (which can cause pneumonia) and some viruses have shown strong links between infection and heart disease. Other studies have shown that people who get flu vaccines are less likely to have heart attacks during the winter.

Have a heart-smart winter

If you’re at high risk for a heart attack, take the following steps to protect your heart during the winter:

Talk with your doctor. Check in with your doctor before you do any strenuous activities in cold weather—including snow shoveling—and ask about flu and pneumonia vaccines.

Dress warmly. People with heart disease are at high risk for hypothermia, a potentially dangerous drop in body temperature. Hypothermia can cause blood flow, breathing and the heart rate to slow down. Severe cases can result in heart failure. Before you go out in the cold, dress warmly in layers of clothing. Air gets trapped between the layers and helps insulate you from the cold. Keep your hands and feet warm and put on a hat or head scarf so that you won’t lose body heat through your head.

Avoid alcohol. Drinking alcohol can be more dangerous in cold weather. Alcohol widens the blood vessels in your skin, which draws heat away from your vital organs.

Use medicines with caution. If you have high blood pressure or an abnormal heart rhythm, check with your doctor before taking cough, cold or flu medicines. Some of them can increase blood pressure, interfere with blood pressure medicine or contribute to an irregular heartbeat.

With a little extra care and attention, you and your doctor can help keep your heart in good health all season.

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