PhotoWhen temperatures plunge your chance of having a heart attack goes up if you already have a higher risk of heart trouble.

Here's why: cold temperatures can constrict arteries and raise blood pressure, causing the heart to work harder or triggering tears or clots in the arteries. Compared to the summer months, people are 26% to 36% more likely to die in winter heart-related health issues, according to research cited by AARP.

"Cold weather can play havoc on older people's hearts, blood pressure and lungs," said Beth Finkel, State Director for AARP in New York State. "By taking some simple steps, people can stay safe and healthy.”

Health experts at the Mayo Clinic say blood pressure is generally higher in the winter than it is the summer, so that if you suffer from hypertension, the condition is worse in winter months. 

Weather sensitivity

But in addition to the cold weather they say a sudden change in weather patterns – such as the recent polar vortex – may also cause your blood vessels to constrict, increasing blood pressure. They say these weather-related variations in blood pressure are more common in people age 65 and older.

Getting too cold – a condition known as hypothermia – places enormous stress on the heart. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), it's heart failure that is normally the cause of death in cases of hypothermia, officially classified as when the body's temperature falls before 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

Symptoms include lack of coordination, mental confusion, slowed reactions, shivering and sleepiness. Children, the elderly and those with heart disease are at special risk. Older people often find it harder to maintain a normal internal body temperature in cold conditions. Sometimes they can suffer hypothermia without being aware of it.

Wind chill dangers

And it's not just cold temperatures that pose a threat. High winds, snow and rain also can take away body heat. Wind can be especially dangerous since it removes the layer of heated air from around your body.

To avoid increasing a winter heart risk, go easy on the snow shoveling. People who aren't accustomed to exercise can easily suffer a heart attack through over-exertion in the cold. A study by the Center for Injury Research and Policy of The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital found that an average of 11,500 snow shoveling-related medical emergencies required hospital treatment each year from 1990 to 2006.

Sleep later than you normally do. Research shows heart attacks are more likely to occur in the morning. If you normally take a morning walk, postpone it to the afternoon when temperatures are a bit warmer.

When you go outside, always dress warmly. Wear a hat, gloves, scarf and layers of clothing, especially if you have high blood pressure. Remember that when you start to shiver if makes your heart beat harder, raising blood pressure.

Don't over-indulge. Eating and drinking too much leads to weight gain, putting added stress on your heart.

If you've made a New Years resolution to get more exercise, that's great. But talk to your doctor first and start slowly. Short intervals of activity alternating with periods of indoor rest are best.

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