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Ho, ho heart attack? Holidays tax the ticker

December 17, 2007|Susan Brink | Times Staff Writer

The good side of holiday hoopla -- increased camaraderie, generosity of spirit -- can help ease depression for some. But what is balm for the mind can be bad news for the ticker.

National statistics show that even as suicides go down during the holiday season, deaths from heart disease go up. Cardiac problems increase so much that researchers have coined the phrases "Merry Christmas Coronary" and "Happy New Year Heart Attack."

And, contrary to conventional wisdom, the increase in heart attack deaths has nothing to do with shoveling snow or coronary artery spasms caused by frigid weather. Dr. Robert A. Kloner, a cardiologist at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, challenged that once-prevalent medical theory in 1999.

His research team examined L.A. County death records of 220,000 people who died of heart disease over a 12-year period. In a paper published in the journal Circulation, they reported that heart disease deaths were 33% higher in December and January than they were from June through September -- even in Southern California's consistently mild climate.

A national study published in 2004 in Circulation further debunked the cold-weather theory. Researchers led by David P. Phillips at UC San Diego looked at 53 million death records between 1973 and 2001. They found a 4.6% increase in heart-related deaths in the period from Christmas Eve through New Year's Day. Although the increase was apparent across the country, the uptick was slightly smaller in the northern border states than in southern border states.

The two riskiest days of the year for heart-related deaths: Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. Christmas and New Year's, it appears, can line up alongside smoking, obesity and high blood pressure as risk factors for cardiac mortality.

Researchers speculate that some of the things that come with the season of joy may be playing a part in heart attack deaths: rich food, alcohol and the season's stress and excitement.

Kloner has some advice on staying healthy -- long enough, at least, to fail at your New Year's resolutions. He tells patients to try to avoid some of the known triggers of heart attack: too much food, salt, fat and alcohol. "Avoid excess physical exertion, overeating, lack of sleep, emotional stress and anger. They have all been associated with cardiac events," he says.

Don't let a flood of social obligations let you forget to take medications for high blood pressure or high cholesterol, or get in the way of exercise routines.

"Don't say, 'I'm at a party. I'm having chest pain, but I'll just have another drink and blow it off,' " Kloner says. It's possible that more people die on the holidays because, in a festive mood, they put off seeing a doctor even in the face of a classic symptom.

If you do need medical care, try to see a physician who knows you, or at least make sure a vacation-substitute physician has all your records. Phillips speculated in his 2004 paper that one reason for the increase in deaths could be that many healthcare providers take time off during the holidays, and patients are seen by doctors who aren't fully aware of patients' histories.

So eat right, exercise, take your medications, don't stress out over what the holidays are costing you, take Cousin Fred's bad jokes with a grain of salt -- but limit those actual grains of salt. And enjoy the party.


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