Dear Chuck, I hear humans are more prone to heart attacks on Christmas Day. True? – Jack W., Hibbing, Minn.
It's true. More people suffer heart attacks and strokes on Christmas Day and New Year's Day than any other days of the year.
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According to Dr. Keith Churchwell, executive director of the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute, a study of 53 million deaths occurring between 1973 and 2001 revealed that deaths from cardiovascular diseases peak in December and January, with the spikes on Christmas and New Year's Day.
Why? A combination of factors: the December culmination and compounding of bad and abundant eating, alcohol abuse, a frenzied festivity schedule, repeated exposure to bad weather, increased stresses, changes in routine and schedules, weight gain, denial of physical pains or limitations, etc.
What can we do to reduce the risk? Here are seven tips to help prevent a holiday heart attack:
- Don't ignore heart attack symptoms, especially during Christmas and New Year's. Your health can't wait until Dec. 26 or Jan. 2. Get to the emergency room immediately if you are experiencing any of these: shortness of breath; pressure, pain or discomfort in the chest, particularly the center; pain in one or both arms, your neck, your jaw, etc.; dizziness or nausea; unusual tiredness; or unusual sweating.
- Take moments to check health. Crazy schedules prompt us to overlook our wellness and our diets, ignore sicknesses and even forget to take vitamin supplements, medications and prescriptions. Pause during the holidays for minute-long checkups.
- Bundle up. If your holiday schedule repeatedly exposes you to the cold spells crossing America, dress warmly and limit your exposure to bad weather.
- Simplify. If you've been overtaxed and stressed because of a crazy December schedule, immediately reduce your scheduled events, forget last-minute shopping, etc. If last-minute cooking has got you going crazy, then order in or go out, even for Christmas or New Year's. They'll get over it, if you can.
- Reduce fatty foods. It might not titillate the taste buds, but it could save your life. Fatty foods clog your arteries and restrict blood flow everywhere.
- Reduce the spirits. You boast that you "don't need alcohol" to have a good time. Well, here's a good time to prove it. Chemicals in alcohol not only can make us irritable but also irritate our heart muscles, leading to irregular heart rhythm.
- Beware of smoke exposure. Tobacco has its given risks, but so does wood burning. All smoke contains toxins that can cause respiratory problems and damage arteries, adding strain on the heart. Ensure good ventilation in your home. Limit fires.
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Dear Mr. Norris, I'm surprised during the holidays how even very fit people jump bail on health concerns. How do you avoid being rude during this time of year when offered so many garbage foods? – "Refusing the Refuse," Houston
That's another great holiday question. Considering what I just shared about the higher risk for heart attacks, it's disappointing that so many health-and-fitness-conscious people fail as much as they do around the holidays and even enable heart attack symptoms in others by the gifts they give and parties they host – though no one is perfect, of course.
Cindy Osborn, a clinical dietitian with the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute, offers a few exceptional holiday tips for staying heart-healthy at those temptation-ridden party events, especially during Christmas and New Year's, and I've added a few tips of my own:
- Try not to lose or gain weight during the holidays. Just maintain your weight. Fluctuation can tilt your holistic balance and can affect mind, body and spirit.
- Avoid "saving calories" by skipping meals before an evening event; it can lead to overindulging.
- Prior to attending a party, have a snack high in protein, such as yogurt, cottage cheese, chicken or even a tablespoon of peanut butter.
- If you bring something to the party, modify it to make it low-fat, so there is at least one item that is safe for you and others to eat.
- When you arrive and are offered a drink, say, "Water for now." Hosts are less prone to offer you a drink as long as you are sipping on one. Less alcohol will lead to more control over the munchies.
- When you are offered hors d'oeuvres, don't grab a single potato chip; you know where that leads. Instead, immediately go to the vegetable platter and keep eating to your heart's content – literally.
- Limit yourself to one trip with a single plate through the buffet line.
- Try new foods, of which we generally eat smaller portions.
- Remember that turkey is a good choice; it's very lean. Ham, not so!
- Eat slowly and engage in conversation to help control portions consumed at meals. It takes your brain about 20 minutes to get the signal that your stomach is full.
- Bring a toothbrush with you, and immediately excuse yourself after dinner and before dessert to use the restroom. We physiologically and psychologically inhibit eating more by brushing. Ever enjoy the taste combo of toothpaste-flavored cookies?