Heart health is important year-round. But, during the cold winter months, it’s particularly important to listen to your body and pay attention to your surroundings. Did you know winter is the most common time of year for heart attacks? Learn why – and what you can do to protect your heart from the cold weather.
Changes in daylight
Winter means fewer daylight hours for most of us. This can alter your hormone balance and increase the risk for those with cardiovascular issues. For example, changes in the hormone cortisol – also referred to as the “stress hormone” – may impact blood pressure levels and impair immunity and inflammatory responses.
Cold and flu season
Colds and the flu can be particularly dangerous for people with heart disease because they cause inflammation and added stress on the body. That can impact heart rate, blood pressure, overall heart strain – and even encourage a heart attack.
Maintaining body heat
Your heart has to work harder to keep you warm in cold temperatures. Arteries tighten, which can restrict blood flow and reduce the oxygen supply throughout your body. As your heart works harder to keep your body warm, your overall heart rate and blood pressure can also increase.
When your body can’t produce enough energy to keep your internal temperature warm, hypothermia sets it. Hypothermia is when your body temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Heart failure is the leading cause of death for people suffering from hypothermia. The elderly are particularly at risk for hypothermia – as we age, our body’s ability to maintain a normal temperature can decrease.
For many people, the cold weather also brings with it a decrease in activities and we often neglect our exercise routines. Combine this with the sudden introduction of shoveling snow in cold weather, and the added exertion and strain this can put on your heart is often underestimated.
Tips for protecting your heart in cold weather
- Go easy on the shoveling. Start slow, take frequent breaks and pay attention to how your body feels. Consider using a small shovel to lighten the load and the strain on your heart. Don’t eat a heavy meal before shoveling – it can put added burden on your heart.
- Beware of the effects of alcohol. Alcohol can stimulate the feeling of warmth and you may not be able to properly judge if the cold weather is impacting on your body temperature, putting you at risk for hypothermia.
- Prevent hypothermia. Dress for the cold weather. Wear warm layers of quick-dry synthetic material. Avoid cotton – it’s notorious for retaining wetness.
- Learn the signs of a heart attack. Chest or upper body pain, shortness of breath, cold sweat, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain may all be symptoms of a heart attack. When in doubt, call 9-1-1 and describe your symptoms.
- Get familiar with the signs of hypothermia. Lack of coordination, confusion, delayed reactions, shivering and sleepiness are all symptoms of hypothermia.
- Get a flu shot. The flu causes inflammation which can increase your chances of a heart attack. A flu shot is recommended for all ages, but especially for folks 65 and older, those at high risk for the flu, or people who suffer from cardiovascular disease.
Need more information?
Your Providence primary care provider is a good source for information about heart health and general wellness. Don’t have a primary care provider? Use our online tools to search for a provider or clinic in your neighborhood.