As we have noted previously, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. The risk factors that can lead to a worsening of the disease are ones that must be consistently addressed to slow advancement of symptoms and a decline in health. But during cold weather months, those with heart disease must give special attention to protecting themselves since they are particularly vulnerable to heart attacks or strokes when temperatures drop.
December and January are peak months for heart disease-related cardiac events since severely cold temperatures are hard on the heart and high-exertion chores such as shoveling snow come into play. During these times, we also have holidays when typical risk factors – smoking, high blood pressure and lack of exercise – are heightened and when patients often become non-compliant with treatment regimens.
If you have heart disease, you must be aware of the ways in which the winter months can present danger.
Extra strain on the heart
Low temperatures cause your blood vessels to narrow which restricts blood flow and reduces oxygen levels. In order to circulate blood properly through the constricted vessels, your heart must pump much harder than usual. This, in turn, increases your heart rate and raises your blood pressure.
When cold causes a drop in your temperature from the normal 98.6 to 95 degrees or less, your body is unable to produce enough energy to keep itself warm internally and death can result. If you are not dressed warmly enough when outside, your body temperature may drop dangerously low without your awareness. Elderly people are particularly vulnerable since they have lower fat levels and a diminished ability to sense temperature so they can suffer from hypothermia without realizing they are in danger.
Exertion/spikes in blood pressure
Those with heart disease must avoid over-exertion when out in the cold since it can result in a sudden spike in blood pressure. In winter, your heart is already working hard to keep your body warm. If you engage in activities such as lifting shovels full of heavy snow, you put your heart under additional strain and can exacerbate heart disease. Even walking through heavy, wet snow can cause undue strain on your heart.
Winds, snow and rain
When winter weather conditions include high winds, snow or rain, the body has an even more difficult time maintaining warmth. For example, 30 degree temperatures with a 30-mile per hour wind equate to a 15 degree drop in temperature for your body regardless of how warmly you are dressed. And when you become wet or damp, the body loses heat even more quickly than when it is dry.
When you have heart disease, it is extremely important to take measures to protect yourself from these sorts of risk during cold winter months.
Wear enough clothing and protect your extremities. When you must be outside, layer your clothing since this traps air between layers which will have an insulating effect. Also cover your head with a hat or scarf since a large amount of body heat can escape through your head. The same is true for your hands and feet which also lose heat rapidly.
Stay in warm environment. Keep your home between 68 and 72 degrees. When visiting family or friends who keep the thermostat lower than 68, take a jacket or afghan for warmth.
Have regular hot meals. Fueling your body with warm food and drinks helps it produce the energy it needs to keep you warm.
Breathe clean air. Try to avoid breathing smoke from wood-burning fireplaces since these can generate ultra-fine particles in the air that can be bad for your heart and lungs.
Shovel safely. If you must shovel snow, use a small shovel and limit the amount of snow you lift on it so you do not overtax your heart. Also take frequent breaks to catch your breath. If you feel any pain at all, stop and get help.
To learn more about how to manage heart disease during cold winter months, log on to vascularhealthclinics.org.