Avoid the Unwanted Gift of a Heart Attack this Holiday Season

Amid the frenzied pace of decorating, planning and shopping for the perfect holiday with family and friends, your health could let you down. Cold temperatures and the heightened stress brought on by these activities can trigger heart attacks or heart-related complications if left unchecked.

While cold weather is dependent upon Mother Nature, stress is a major contributor that everyone can and should control, says Dr. Nasser Lakkis, chief, Cardiology Department, Ben Taub General Hospital, part of the Harris County Hospital District.

“Stress and its many forms — be it emotional, financial or physical — can put undue pressure on your heart during a time that should be happy and joyous,” he says.

Whether it’s the stress of buying gifts, planning events, preparing meals, decorating houses or visiting family, your heart can only take so much.

“People don’t always understand that stress can be in anything you do,” says Lakkis, also a professor at Baylor College of Medicine. “It’s all in how you deal with things. If you know that a family gathering is going to be stressful, just say no to the conflict. Holidays should be fun and enjoyable. Family disputes or disagreements should be put off for later when the time is right.”

Stress, a common occurrence in everyday life, elevates adrenaline levels and can lead to increases in heart rate and blood pressure. The high levels of adrenaline also cause spasms in the arteries that supply blood to and from the heart muscle. If left unchecked, these symptoms can lead to a heart attack.

Common heart attack symptoms include:
• Chest discomfort or pain
• Upper body pain
• Shortness of breath
• Anxiety
• Lightheadedness
• Sweating
• Nausea and vomiting
• Back or jaw pain (mainly among women)

“While most heart attacks begin with subtle symptoms, they should not be ignored,” Lakkis says.
“Don't dismiss them or brush them off as other ailments like indigestion or anxiety. Heart attack symptoms vary widely from person to person. One person may have only chest discomfort while someone else may experience excruciating pain.” 

To complicate matters more, holidays are a time when people become complacent about their health. Many stop following healthy habits like taking prescription medicines, exercising regularly or eating well. They also tend to put off tale-tell signs of medical problems because of the holiday rush.

“Don’t,” Lakkis warns. “The greatest gift you could give your family and yourself is a healthy you, but it involves being responsible for yourself.”

Some recommendations to ease stress:

• Enjoy family gatherings and take them in stride.
• If alone, reach out to friends or do volunteer work.
• If concerned about finances, set and stick to a realistic budget. Large credit cards bills only delay your stress for later.
• Stop or minimize the amount of alcohol you drink or tobacco you use.
• Plan out activities and don’t dwell on the mishaps.
• Say no. Don’t feel obligated to do things when you can’t.
• Be realistic about holiday expectations to avoid disappointment.

While men and women are equally susceptible to heart attacks, Lakkis says more heart attacks tend to occur in the morning when it seems adrenaline is naturally high. The risk for a heart attack could increase with the addition of holiday stress if not careful.

“Wake up happy and see it as the great start to a beautiful day,” he says. “It’s all in how you look at things.”

For more information about heart attacks, visit the American Heart Association at www.heart.org

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