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Heart problems rise over holidays

AP

Not to dampen any holiday spirits, but studies show heart troubles rise this time of year.

The phenomenon is not confined to the West; recent research in China found the same thing. The increase includes fatal and nonfatal heart attacks and a less serious condition dubbed “holiday heart syndrome” — an irregular heartbeat caused by too much alcohol.

Reasons for the seasonal increase are uncertain. Theories include cold weather, overindulgence and stress.

“The other day, we had three heart attacks come in within four hours,” said Dr. Charles Davidson, chief of Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s cardiac catheterization services. The hospital’s usual rate is two or three a week.

American Heart Association spokesman Dr. Richard Stein, a cardiologist at New York University’s medical center, said most studies investigating holiday heart trends have found a statistical increase in heart attacks and other problems — not a giant surge, but worth noting.

Holiday heart problems happen in cold climates, sometimes when people shovel too much snow or spend too much time outdoors. Cold can constrict arteries, increasing demand on the heart. But problems also happen in warm places.

Flu season coincides with winter holidays, and Stein said that might be a factor, since the virus can cause inflammation that can stress the heart.

Stein recommends the usual preventive advice, including flu shots, avoiding excessive eating and drinking, and getting enough exercise.

David Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California’s San Diego campus, has long studied when people die. His research shows that deaths from heart problems increase almost 5 percent on Christmas Day, the day after and on New Year’s Day. Deaths from other causes also increase at holiday time, but not as much.

Phillips estimates that there are 2,000 extra deaths each year, mostly from heart-related problems, linked with Christmas and New Year’s in America.

“Holiday heart syndrome” is a type of irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation brought on by too much alcohol. It involves irregular contractions in the heart’s upper two chambers that patients often feel as palpitations, a funny fluttery sensation in the chest, or chest pain.

“People who come in with this, they’re shocked that it happened,” said Dr. Deepak Bhatt, a heart specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Many aren’t chronic drinkers and “may not realize that excess drinking at the annual Christmas party has its own risks,” he said.

The condition typically happens in otherwise healthy adults, and resolves within 24 hours.