Cold “heart” facts – Winter can increase cardiovascular disease risk
For some, winter is the most joyous time of the year, filled with family, festivities and fun, but for those living with cardiovascular disease (CVD), winter can bring with it some risk. Research from the UK suggests that every 1°C reduction in temperature on a single day is associated with around 200 additional heart attacks.1 Moreover, research from Sweden shows there is an estimated 37% increase in heart attacks on Christmas Eve alone,2 but why?
Seasonal changes in temperature and the rise in contagious illnesses during the winter months, including influenza, can increase a person’s risk of heart attack if they already have CVD.3,4,5 Cooler temperatures are associated with some additional risk factors for CVD, and there are a few precautions people can take to protect their heart health in winter.
Cold weather can impact how blood flows around the body, increasing the risk of heart-related problems in those with CVD3
Cold weather places physiological stress on our bodies. When it’s cold, our blood vessels constrict, or narrow, to minimise heat loss and maintain our body’s core temperature.4,5 This constriction can cause blood pressure to increase, putting extra strain on the heart as it forces blood around the body at a higher pressure.5
Thermal stress on the body due to a sudden change in temperature can also have a profound and direct effect on the viscosity of the blood’s platelets, making the blood thicker, more sticky and more prone to dangerous clotting, which could, in turn, lead to a heart attack.3
It is important to dress for the weather. Wearing layers of clothing that can be easily removed is essential to ensuring the body can cope with and adapt to drastic changes in temperature.5
Lifestyle changes can inadvertently increase stress to the heart
Every year, during winter and the festive season, people tend to change their lifestyle. For many there is an increase in travelling, excessive food and alcohol consumption, and a tendency for people to fluctuate their exercise patterns significantly.3
Overexertion – People can inadvertently overexert themselves in cooler temperatures, be it walking briskly through heavy winds or doing more strenuous physical activity to keep warm.6 This can lead to an increased demand for oxygen and therefore additional stress to the heart.6
Staying physically active is a great way of keeping the body balanced and the heart healthy, but it is important to not overdo it and allow enough time to recover properly.6 Sleep is crucial because it helps the body regenerate whilst stabilising energy and appetite levels the next day.
Increased diet and alcohol consumption – During the festive season, it’s common for people to consume higher quantities of alcohol and eat richer, more fatty foods. For those with CVD, it is essential to maintain healthy habits to ensure heart health is not compromised.3,7
It is important to maintain a ‘heart-healthy’ diet and incorporating heart-healthy foods into your diet, such as fruit and vegetables, fibre-rich wholegrains, fatty-fish, nuts and seeds is a great way to maintain optimum cardiovascular health.7 Reducing the intake of foods loaded with saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and cholesterol, as well as limiting the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and alcohol can help reduce unnecessary strain on the heart.7
Delays in seeking medical treatment – Winter and the festive season are peak periods for travel and visiting family, meaning that people tend to be away from their local healthcare teams, and sometimes for long periods of time. For those with CVD, not attending doctor appointments and/or delaying medical treatment for chest pains or respiratory viral infections, could lead blood pressure to spiral, increasing the risk of a heart attack.
It is important that patients listen to their bodies, and not delay making an appointment with their doctor or seeking immediate support. Patients that understand their blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar numbers can work with their doctors to keep them in the normal range.
In addition to the biological, environmental and lifestyle impacts of winter on CVD risk, the festive season can cause psychological stress, contributing to higher blood pressure and aggravation of CVD risk factors.
As part of our commitment to caring for every heartbeat, we know that to protect those with CVD we must go beyond just providing innovative medicines. Our patient-centric approach sits at the heart of our activities, and we believe improving CVD awareness and improving CVD education is essential to improving patient outcomes across Europe. CVD doesn’t need to prevent patients from enjoying winter, which is why understanding the risk factors and precautions you can take to mitigate them is so important.