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How to protect your heart in winter

December 13, 2017

Winter is the most common season for heart attacks, especially among the elderly population.

Cold temperatures can cause a rise in blood pressure and decrease the supply of oxygenated blood to the heart muscle. In addition, there is an increased risk of blood clots during winter months due to higher levels of circulating proteins called clotting factors. The heart has to work harder pumping blood through tightened arteries in order to maintain the body heat.

Some studies show that in cold temperatures, we also produce more of the brown fat that helps us to convert food into heat. Brown fat increases production of "bad" cholesterol (LDLs) known for its atherosclerotic effect on the coronary arteries.

Winter months also bring more respiratory infections leading to a coronary event. Lung inflammation, as seen in pneumonia patients, increases platelet activity and can lead to an infarct.

All of these factors can trigger a heart attack. The warning signs of heart attack include chest pain, shortness of breath, sudden fatigue or dizziness, sweating, nausea and irregular heartbeat. The good news is that heart attacks are one of the easiest diseases to prevent and avoid. People, especially elderly and those with chronic diseases and heart conditions, need to be proactive. We recommend a few steps to maintain a healthy heart:

  • Avoiding tobacco - people who use tobacco are more likely to develop heart attacks, high blood pressure, blood clots, strokes, hemorrhages, aneurysms and other disorders of the cardiovascular system.
  • Eating a well-balanced diet - fruits, vegetables, whole grains and good sources of proteins such as poultry, fish or nuts; mono and polyunsaturated fats are recommended. Cutting down on sweets, salt, red meat can all lower the risk for coronary heart disease.
  • Staying active - exercising for at least 40 minutes a day lowers the risk for a heart attack. If the weather permits and it is not too cold, dressing warmly and exercising outdoors is as good as walking fast around a shopping mall.
  • Aiming for a healthy weight, even around holidays - large abdomen raises the risk of dying from heart disease, even if a person is not overweight.
  • Getting a flu shot - the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology recommend an annual flu vaccine for cardiovascular disease patients with coronary and other atherosclerotic vascular disease.
  • Consuming alcohol in moderation - one drink a day for women and two for men.
  • Staying warm - heat the main rooms to at least 64F-18C, wrap up warmly when going out in cold weather and wear a hat, scarf and gloves.
Dr. Ivan Pena-Sing is a cardiologist working at the Clinic by the Sea. For more information on heart disease and how to protect yourself or your family during the winter season, call 302-645-0999.