Don’t ignore cardiac risks during holidays

It’s been long known that the holidays are hazardous to your health. Cardiologists talk about the “Merry Christmas Coronary” or the “Happy New Year Heart Attack.” But emergency rooms will be busy this weekend, too. KUHF health science and technology reporter Carrie Feibel looks into the reasons why and asks a doctor what can be done.


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Dr. Scott Sherron is a cardiologist with the Texas Heart Institute.  He’s familiar with the studies that show a 4 to 5 percent increase in death rates around Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. He’s not aware of any studies that focus on Thanksgiving in particular, but says that hospital workers know from experience that this weekend also brings trouble.

“The day after Thanksgiving is not only the busiest shopping day of the year. It’s definitely the busiest heart failure day of the year.”

It’s not exactly clear why holidays cause a spike in cardiac deaths and other illnesses. Sherron says stress probably plays a role, and eating and drinking too much.

“One of the things we do know is that sudden changes in diet, even one heavy, lipid-rich or fat-rich meal can change the fat content of your blood at that moment. And even though it takes years to build up plaque, it becomes unstable in a matter of minutes and the blockage goes from perhaps being only 50 percent narrowed to a complete blockage really in a matter of a minute, and that’s the beginning of the heart attack.”

 ICU nurses Sylvia Murdock and Barbara Cooper at St. Joseph Medical Center
ICU nurses Sylvia Murdock and Barbara Cooper prepare for an influx of patients on Thanksgiving weekend at St. Joseph Medical Center

Barbara Cooper is an intensive care nurse at St. Joseph Medical Center in downtown Houston. She says kidney patients are also at risk because of Thanksgiving.

“We get a lot of renal patients in that needs to be dialyzed because they had too much salt consumption or too much liquids.”

Almost by definition, holidays involve festivity, upended routines, and more physical activity. Again, Dr. Scott Sherron:

“Whether it’s the family football game or whether it’s that you need to do more lifting or work or exercise to get ready for this event, you can strain yourself in ways you’re not accustomed to.”

There may be no way to avoid those stresses and strains, but Sherron says the real problem is that people will ignore symptoms of a heart attack or stroke. Symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, sudden numbness or confusion.

“And there’s a big hesitance to go to the emergency room and interrupt your holiday and your family’s holiday and everything else that can happen. It’s easier to assume that maybe that was — that you ate too much, or to come up with some excuse for why you are having the symptom on that day and it turns out it was a heart attack.”

Sherron says forget about being polite or ruining a good time. Don’t be in denial, call 9-1-1. The longer you delay, the more the heart muscle can be permanently damaged. Brain damage from a stroke can also be limited if you seek medical care immediately.

“Even though it’s the holidays; it’s okay to eat right. It’s okay to enjoy yourself in moderation and if you feel sick, it’s also okay to go the emergency room that way you’ll have next Thanksgiving and next Christmas and next New Year’s still to come.”

From the KUHF Health Science and Technology Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.

This story originally aired November 26, 2010.

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