The season to be merry also happens to be an extremely stressful time for many. A new Swedish study published in the British Medical Journal recorded more than 283,000 heart attacks between 1998 and 2013 with the risk of a heart attack 15 percent higher on Christmas Eve, 37 percent higher on Christmas Day, and 20 percent higher on New Year’s Day.
The report has not surprised cardiologists, who are well aware that stress can aggravate the onset of a heart attack, according to Meagan Murphy Wasfy, M.D., a cardiologist at Mass General Hospital in Boston.
“There’s been a lot of research showing that any kind of stressful event happening at national scale increases the risk of a heart attack,” adds Christopher Kelly, M.D., a cardiologist at Columbia University Medical Center.
Studies show that the risk of heart attack increased significantly on days when the national team in Germany was competing in the World Cup. Driving in busy and loud traffic on Mondays also seemed to increase cardiac events. Spikes in stress, which inflame the arteries, intensify activity in a brain region called the amygdala, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and heart complications. “Short-term risk of heart attack is higher when experiencing stressors,” Kelly says.
During the holidays, there are many factors that contribute to an upsurge in cardiac events, including jet lag, traffic jams, stressful contact with family, and excessive drinking, which can lead to atrial fibrillation, also known as holiday heart, an irregular heartbeat that can result in blood clots and other heart problems, says Kelly.
People should not that fear that stress will induce a heart attack in a healthy heart. It tends to be the result of years of conditioning from smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes, or excess weight. These factors create plaques that cause blood clots, blocking off arterial flow. “Stress can rip the roof off of a plaque and the plaque can cause a blood clot that blocks off the artery,” Kelly says. The end result of a blocked artery is a heart attack. Stress may simply set the cardiac event in motion.
The risk of cardiac problems should of course not keep people from enjoying the holidays. It is simply a good idea to drink in moderation and avoid excessive stress. Though if you feel pressure in your chest or shortness of breath, knowing that you are at risk, you should immediately head for the ER. “Anyone who has these symptoms needs to hurry up and seek medical attention,” Kelly says. “It’s a situation where every minute counts.”