Home is Where the Heart Attack Is

Orchard House in Winter, Concord MA


While World Stroke Day was October 29th,  we’re entering heart attack season this month with Thanksgiving. Studies show that the winter holidays bring not only pumpkin pie and mistletoe, but heart attacks and various forms of cardiac trouble.

To review, a heart attack is when a clot or something else cuts off blood flow to the heart, and a stroke is when a clot or a burst blood vessel stops blood flow to the brain.



Heart-related deaths increase by 5 percent during the holiday season, peaking on Christmas, the day after Christmas, and New Year’s Day (Circulation, 2004).  Holiday gatherings of any sort, from Thanksgiving through the Super Bowl, can be stressful, so I’m writing from a nondenominational perspective.


Signs of Stroke:

  • Face is drooping
  • Arm is weak
  • Speech is slurred

Signs of Heart Attack:


  • Chest pain (central to the chest, pressure)
  • Discomfort in other areas of the body: one or both arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Shortness or breath, with or without chest discomfort
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, lightheadedness

NOTE: Women are more likely to experience shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

Who’s at risk?


  • Smokers
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Overweight and obese
  • Unhealthy diet (high in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium)
  • Lack of routine physical activity
  • High blood sugar due to insulin resistance or diabetes


This sounds serious. What’s next?

What can you do to avoid a myocardia infarcation (AKA: heart attack) during the holiday season?

  • Dress appropriately for the weather: if it’s cold, dress warmly, and if it’s warm, dress comfortably. Reduce the thermal stress on your body.
  • Alter, Adapt, and/or Avoid Stressors: Whether it’s financial stress from traveling and feeling obligated to give gifts, familial disputes, flying on crowded planes or taking busy trains, all the planning, impressing the in-laws, you name it, the holiday season is rife with stress. If you are at risk for a heart attack, you should strongly consider managing your holiday stress and avoiding the drive to “do it all.”  That includes avoiding going home for the holidays, if interacting with certain family members “sets you off.” Better to be alive and heart attack-free than to have shown up at Aunt Edna’s house merely to fulfill an obligation. (Don’t tell your mom I said that.) Your waistline will probably thank you, too, which leads us to our next tip:
  • Eat healthy and keep up your exercise routine: If you don’t have a healthy plan in place, how about you start that New Year’s Resolution now? Putting off any health-centric resolutions only makes your goal more distant on January first. Going to a (non-emotionally-triggering) gathering? Bring a healthy dish to share, so at least you know you have something “safe.”
  • Avoid alcohol. For some people, as much as one drink can trigger atrial fibrillation, when the heart begins to beat out of rhythm, leading to greater cardiac trouble.  Best to avoid it altogether if you’re at risk for a heart attack.
  • Avoid polluted air and don’t sit close to fireplaces/pits (yes, I know, they’re traditional for that Solstice party and roasting chestnuts on an open fire, but this goes back to putting stress on your body when you’re at risk for a heart attack–just don’t).
  • Don’t delay seeking medical care. Consult your doctor’s office holiday schedule. (I had a physical on Christmas Eve in 2013; depends on your doctor.)  If you’ve got a nagging case of something that feels like heartburn or chest tightness, it may be a heart attack in the making. Better to treat symptoms early than for one glass of mulled wine to drop you to your knees, clutching your chest, and ending up in an under-staffed hospital during the winter holidays.

As you make your holiday plans the next few months, make sure you take your health into account.  Avoiding the Happy Hanukkah Heart Attack or Merry Christmas Coronary may be the best present you give to anyone all year.

Related posts