The holidays can be some of the most memorable and happiest times of the year. Sadly, however, holidays can also be the deadliest time of the year. According to a 2004 study published in the journal Circulation, researchers at the University of California San Diego and Tuft’s University School of Medicine found a 5% increase in heart related deaths during the holiday season. Moreover, the highest number of cardiac deaths is highest on December 25th more than any other day of the year followed by December 26th and January 1st. This increase was noted to be consistent over years. However, heart attacks are not the only conditions with seasonal increases. Strokes, migraine headaches, epileptic seizures, car fatalities, and alcohol toxicity often spike from December through January.
Why are the holidays more likely to produce these conditions?
Several phenomena can explain these increases. Because the holidays often occur during the winter season this implies frigid winter temperatures. Cold weather strains the cardiovascular system as blood vessels constrict, and blood is more likely to clot causing the heart to work harder. However, cold weather isn’t the sole risk factor. Holidays often means forgetting moderation with regards to drinking and eating. We are all guilty of increasing our intake of salts and sweets. Alcohol binges are associated with a condition known as the” holiday heart syndrome” in which a relatively healthy individual can binge drink on alcohol, and this leads to a cardiac rhythm disturbance, most commonly atrial fibrillation. This in turn is a risk factor for stroke.
In addition to alcohol, holidays can be stressful and stress leads to anxiety, which in turn causes sleep deprivation which increases drinking so as to create an unhealthy cycle. Because of holiday expectations, most individuals want to postpone seeking urgent medical help when symptoms develop so as not to ruin the festivities. Added to the mix are infections such as influenza and other bugs that peak during this time which also burdens the heart and brain. To make matters worse, hospitals and clinics are staffed with fewer nurses, physician offices tend to close earlier, pharmacies reduce their holiday hours making refilling medications, seeing one’s physician, and obtaining other medical help more difficult to access.
5 Tips to improve the holiday experience and lessen one’s chance for a medical emergency
- Set expectations realistically. Don’t expect a perfect holiday. If one is going to be together with family that causes stress, think carefully about the amount of interaction one is going to have because these stressors can be problematic.
- Make good decisions with regards to food and alcohol. Too much drinking, and too much eating can lead to problems. Try to moderate one’s intake of food and alcohol. Some individuals with migraines will have exacerbation if they drink wines or alcoholic beverages that are laced with preservatives. Diabetics may have more trouble if they suddenly indulge in desserts and candy. Too much alcohol is a recipe for disaster.
- Prevent and address health problems. See your doctor and refill prescriptions prior to the holidays. If someone around you is sick please practice good hand hygiene and cough/sneeze etiquette. Try to limit one’s interaction and make certain that all your vaccinations such as flu vaccines are up-to-date. If symptoms develop, seek help don’t wait until the holiday has passed. This can be a costly mistake.
- Try to stay warm, especially in cold weather climates and limit one’s heavy activity outdoors such as snow shoveling, especially if you have a heart condition and are not used to heavy exertion.
- Try to keep stock of what’s important at the holidays. Enjoy the time with your family, get some sleep, catch a movie or your favorite TV show and try to see the positives and not accentuate the negative. If you have no family or are away from them, find support from friends or a group activity.
Following these steps will turn your holidays into happy memories and not nightmares.
Dr. Joseph Sirven is a first-generation Cuban-American. He is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Neurology and was past Director of Education for Mayo Clinic Arizona. He is editor-in-chief of epilepsy.com and has served U.S. and global governmental agencies including the Institute of Medicine, NASA, FAA, NIH and CDC.