Everyone knows winter is cold and flu season, but most people dont know that its also the prime season for heart attacks too.

In the United States, the risks of having a heart attack during the winter months are twice as high as in the summertime. And, a heart attack in the winter is also more likely to be fatal than a heart attack during any other time of year.

Why? Lots of reasons, and theyre not all tied to cold weather. Even people who live in warm climates have an increased risk.

Wintertime Risks

Here are some reasons why heart attacks are more common during the winter than other months and some tips to help you combat them:

• Cold weather: When a person gets cold, the bodys automatic response is to narrow the blood vessels. Cutting down on blood flow to the skin means the body doesnt lose as much heat. But for people who already have arteries filled with plaque, the narrowing of the blood vessels raises the risk that one will become blocked, triggering a heart attack.

The narrowing also increases blood pressure, which can strain a diseased heart. So bundle up this winter, and keep your blood flowing freely.

• Snow shoveling: Believe it or not, studies show that heart attack rates jump dramatically in the first few days after a major snowstorm, usually a result of snow shoveling. Shoveling snow is incredibly strenuous causing the heart to work harder and raising your blood pressure. Couple that with the cold temperatures and heart attack risk soars.

If you must shovel, push rather than lift the snow as much as possible, stay warm and take frequent breaks or better yet buy a snow blower. And if youre over age 50, overweight or out of shape, or have suffered a previous heart attack, dont shovel at all.

• New Years resolutions: Its not just shovelers who run the risk of taxing their heart in the winter. Every Jan. 1, millions of people join gyms or start exercise programs as part of their New Years resolution to get in shape, and many may overexert themselves too soon.

If you have a heart condition or risk factors for heart disease like high cholesterol and high blood pressure, talk to your doctor about what may be appropriate for you.

• Stressful season: The holiday season for many people is a very stressful time, causing anxiety, loneliness and depression which are also linked to heart attacks. Check your mood at www.depressionscreening.org and get help, if needed.

• Holiday feasting: People tend to eat more, drink more, and gain more weight during the holiday season and winter months all of which are hard on the ticker and risky for someone with heart disease. Keep a watchful eye on your diet, avoid binging on fatty foods or alcohol, and remember. Everything in moderation!

• Less daylight: Its a fact that less daylight in the winter can worsen mood problems, increase depression risk, and can also affect the heart. Studies have looked at heart-attack patients and found they have lower levels of vitamin D (which comes from sunlight) than healthy people.

To boost your vitamin D intake during the dark winter months, everyone over 50 should take a daily vitamin that contains at least 400 IU (international units) of vitamin D. Those over age 70 need at least 600 IU.

• Flu: The flu is another culprit responsible for the winter surge in heart attacks. A flu infection can increase blood pressure, stir up white blood cell activity, and change C-reactive protein and fibrinogen levels in the blood all bad news for your heart. Get an annual flu shot. It can cut your heart attack risk in half.


Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of The Savvy Senior books.