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The holidays bring a spike in heart attacks. Here's why

Posted at 3:03 PM, Dec 20, 2019

This time of year is filled with shopping and holiday cheer. But along with the sweets and the sweaters, comes a third "S" — stress.

“I definitely get stressed when I’m shopping, just to make sure everyone will like the gift I give them,” one woman said while shopping at a local market in Denver.

"I think family stresses families out,” Christina Critchell said.

Holiday stress is a real problem for a lot of people.

“I decided just this week that part of it is trying to juggle everybody’s different expectations,” Sarah Twiss said.

A survey from Healthline found around 62% of people experience some level of stress during the holidays. Only 10% said they’re not stressed at all.

“Everybody’s looking for a perfect Christmas,” said Dr. Ira Dauber, a physician at South Denver Cardiology. “It’s very stressful, nobody wants to ruin anybody else’s good time.”

That stress can take a toll.

“There’s a peak of heart attacks Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Years Day,” Dauber said.

He helps patients with a variety of heart issues.

“There’s more than one medical study that says there is such a thing as a 'holiday heart attack,' ” Dauber said.’’ In one study by the American Heart Association, researchers found a 4.2% increase in heart-related deaths between December 25 and January 7."

Another study by the British Medical Journal found the highest risk for heart attack is on Christmas Eve.

“What causes the spike in holiday heart attacks is really a hard thing to know,” Dauber said. “A lot of the theory is it's a stressful time of year.”

The theories on why this happens changes depending on the doctor you talk to.

“The short answer is yes, stress can be a factor in heart attacks,” said Dr. David Avner, an emergency medicine physician at UCHealth Broomfield Hospital.

He said a lot of other factors also contribute to this spike, like traveling more around the holidays, forgetting medications — like blood pressure pills — at home, or simply not speaking up when you don’t feel well.

“You might not want to interrupt the festivities and say, you know, I’m having some chest discomfort,” Avner said. “You don’t want to be shy about letting family and friends know.”

There are ways to lower your risk, too. He said monitoring your diet, avoiding fatty foods and making sure you’re taking your medications regularly will help.

“You need to be aware of what your body normally can do and any changes to that,” he said. “Heart attacks announce themselves very differently in different people.”

There are also ways to keep your stress at bay.

“It’s going to be different for different people, so if you go to a spa and that helps you feel relaxed, that’s gonna help," Avner said. "If things are feeling stressed at home and you go for a walk, or you like to go to the gym and that’s your outlet for stress release, those would probably be equally as effective."