With the holidays around the corner, in addition to being a fun time to see family and friends, it can also be stressful. And, with that in mind, managing your stress levels — especially at this time of year — is crucial. In fact, the risk of a heart attack increases on Christmas Eve around 10 p.m., according to a new Swedish study in the Christmas issue of The BMJ. This is especially true among older or sicker people. The cause? Emotional stress, and researchers said society should increase awareness of this high-risk group.
Study senior author Dr. David Erlinge, head of the office of cardiology at Skane University Hospital in Lund, said that there was an increased risk of heart attack around traditional holidays overall. For instance, during Christmas/New Year’s, the risk was 15 percent versus a regular December day, he said.
Dr. Bryant Nguyen, a cardiologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital, tells Bustle that although the study appears to be well-designed, it doesn’t mean you can ascertain cause and effect from it. “Whether those numbers are of practical importance or caused by emotional stress is not answered by the study,” he says. “However, the body’s stress response is the common pathway that can lead to a sudden heart attack — which aren’t truly ‘sudden.’” He notes that they are the tip of an iceberg of risk built up over a lifetime, or in 50 percent of cases, genetic risk.
Increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and fluid retention can all happen during Christmas Eve activities, Dr. Nguyen says. Plus, when you factor in alcohol consumption, those at highest risk or ‘on the edge’ for a heart attack could be tipped over that edge.
Dr. Sherry A. Ross, women’s health expert and author of she-ology. The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period., agrees. “It’s well-known that extreme emotional reactions and situations can put damaging stress on a susceptible heart,” she tells Bustle. She says various triggers can increase anxiety and stress, from family and financial challenges to not getting enough rest and relaxation. Collectively, this creates a stress tornado that can destroy a weak heart during the holiday season, Dr. Ross says, and so it is more important than ever to manage your stress levels.
The study, too, alluded to a link between stress and an increased heart attack risk. To find the correlation between heart attacks and when they are most prevalent — i.e., on a certain holiday or at a certain time of day — researchers in Sweden analyzed the timing of 283,014 heart attacks that were reported to the Swedish coronary care unit registry (SWEDEHEART) from 1998 to 2013. The control periods were two weeks before and after a holiday, as well as the same period the year before and after a sporting event.
But no associated risks were found with New Year’s eve. However, researchers did find a higher risk of heart attacks on New Year’s Day, which they said may be because of people masking their symptoms due to alcohol. Higher risks were also not associated with Easter holidays or sporting events.
Overall, on Christmas and Midsummer holidays, people had higher risks of heart attack — 15 percent and 12 percent, respectively — compared with the control period, researchers found. There were also higher risks on Mondays and early mornings (8 a.m.). Some short-term events, too — including hurricanes, major sporting events, and stock market crashes — were linked to emotional stress and are associated with a higher risk of heart attack. But there is not enough data regarding the timing and severity of symptoms in a nationwide study, researchers said.
The researchers noted that this was an observational study, and think think it’s the largest study done using heart attack data from a well-known registry. However, they state that no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect; some heart attack risks may be due to other factors. They also point out that, overall, emotional states such as grief, anxiety, and stress have previously been shown to increase the risk of having a heart attack, as have physical activity and lifestyle changes. Hence, since many of these emotions tend to occur over the holidays, a correlation can be made between them and the increased risk of a heart attack, particularly among older people and those with a history of diabetes and coronary artery disease, the study said.
While it wasn't addressed in the study, Dr. Ross says to keep in mind that heart disease is the number one killer of women. “It should not be thought of as a ‘man’s disease’ any longer by the medical community nor by women,” she says. “Awareness, education, and prevention are the key strategies to preventing heart disease in both women and men.”
Tips On Managing Stress
Dr. Ross says managing your stress is one preventative measure you can take. “A good defense makes for the perfect offense,” she says. “You have to plan ahead to minimize common emotional and physical holiday stressors.” She says that stress and stressors directly affect health. “How you manage and control your behaviors in reaction to stressors can be controlled through making healthy life choices, yoga, meditation, and practicing mindfulness — especially during the holidays.”
Dr. Nguyen agrees, saying that the same rules about healthy living apply the other 364 days a year, not just Christmas Eve. “The holidays pose an extra challenge in higher level of social interaction with friends and family, which usually results in tremendous joy or occasionally some conflict,” he says. He tells his patients to stay positive and focus on their well-being during the holidays — then, the more healthy living you do, the more time you’ll have to spend with loved ones.
So, while you’re celebrating Christmas Eve — and anytime really — it’s best to keep this advice in mind to ensure you have a happy and healthy holiday.