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11 January 2017

Cardiovascular Disease More Prevalent in Winter

Winter weather naturally afflicts those in its grasp with a sense of wonderment, happiness, and familial joy. The holiday season is one that stirs something within even the bitterest of cynics. Good as that may be, the winter season can wreak havoc on the body, setting the stage for cardiovascular disease. There are 53% more heart attacks in winter than in summer, and those in winter are more damaging to the cardiac muscle.

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Blustering winds and rain can greatly reduce body temperature. In response to the cold, blood vessels constrict in order to conserve body heat. Though this is a natural response, it causes blood pressure to rise, putting strain on the heart. Additionally, lowered body temperature can increase blood viscosity and increase certain proteins that can increase the chance of blood clots. The cooler ambient temperatures force the heart to work harder at preserving body heat, attributing to tightened arteries and restricting blood flow throughout the body. This reduces the oxygen supply to the heart. Tightened arteries and a lessened supply of oxygen make for a deadly combo. All these factors combined spur one towards a heart attack.

Those aged 40 and older must be especially aware during the winter season as they are at an increased risk of heart attack, says Prithwiraj Bhattacharya, Associate Consultant Cardiologist at Fortis Hospital Anandapur. People with other health issues, like obesity or hypertension, are at greater risk.


Cold Temperature is Not All to Blame

Limited sunlight during the winter makes it difficult to maintain the correct level of vitamin D. This alone isn’t overly worrying as it can be remedied with vitamin D supplements, but the absorption of vitamin D triggers physiological mechanisms that fight against heart disease. Stephan P. Glasser, MD, professor of preventative medicine at the University of Alabama said, “There is a change in the ratio of daylight hours to dark hours, which changes the hormonal balance, and the hormones involved, such as cortisol, can lower the threshold for a cardiovascular event.”

The presence of vitamin D, according to Dr Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic physician and chairman of the family medicine department at St. Alexius Medical Center, affects a large number of different diseases and health conditions. In a clinical endocrinology study, people with the lowest average vitamin D levels had a 124% greater risk of dying from all causes and a 378% greater risk of dying from a heart problem. It is responsible for increasing the body’s natural anti-inflammatory cytokines, supressing vascular calcification, and inhibiting vascular smooth muscle growth.


Physical Activity in Winter

Early morning exertion may be the nail in the coffin when it comes to heart complications. Many people experience what is known as the “a.m. surge,” a rise in blood pressure occurring as the body is waking, preparing for the day ahead. In the winter, daylight starts later and ends earlier prompting many to be active earlier than they would be in warmer months: “This shift of activities to morning hours adds to the normal circadian variation in morning – further increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and the hormones that lower the threshold for a cardiovascular event,” says Glasser. Those who partake in physical activity (e.g. yard work or shovelling) in the morning are at greater risk for heart attacks or strokes.

Physical exertion is just one of the necessary evils that go hand-in-hand with winter. Something as simple as shovelling out a parking spot or clearing snow from the driveway can put you at an increased risk of cardiovascular complications. However, that doesn’t mean that you are disallowed from physical activities in winter. It’s important to allow the body sufficient time to acclimate to outdoor activities in the cold. Starting slow is key.
  • Exert yourself for 15 minutes before taking a break
  • Allow your pulse to come back to normal before continuing with any outdoor activities
  • Abstain from smoking or having caffeine

Warmth Doesn’t Negate Heart Disease

Those living or wintering in warm climates are still at risk during winter. Karol Watson, MD, PhD, co-director of preventive cardiology at the University of Southern California attributes it to the dreaded flu season, “We know that inflammation can trigger a heart attack and the flu causes inflammation.” Arterial plaque is made less stable from inflammation, dislodging, blocking arteries, and generally contributing to a heart attack. There is an easy way to stave off heart attacks: get the flu shot! Doing so lowers the chance of a heart attack.


Prevention

Heart disease doesn’t come with warning signs and ample time to fix the situation. Dr Mercola states that the most common symptom is sudden death, so keeping on top of your health is the best prevention. Here are a few of his tips to maintaining good cardiovascular health:
  1. Take a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 supplement.
  2. Eat a balanced diet, favouring fresh produce and a good variety.
  3. Exercise regularly to keep your heart and body healthy.
  4. Optimise insulin levels by cutting down on your intake of grains and sugars.
  5. Keep up with vitamin D by exposing yourself to the sun or taking a supplement.

Jacqui Litvan

Jacqui Litvan, wielding a bachelor's degree in English, strives to create a world of fantasy amidst the ever-changing landscape of military life. Attempting to become a writer, she fuels herself with coffee (working as a barista) and music (spending free time as a raver).