In December and January, elevated stress from gift shopping and entertaining guests combined with overindulgence of fatty, salty foods and alcoholic beverages during celebrations creates the perfect storm for an elevated risk for heart problems.
Earlier this month, Dr. Darryl Anderson, director of the Medical Assistant Program at Plaza College, joined students for an event promoting awareness of “holiday heart” syndrome.
The presentation prepared students for what they may experience when they begin to work in hospitals and outlined strategies for preventing the condition.
According to a study by faculty at Tufts and UC San Diego, the number of heart-related deaths in the U.S. increases by 5 percent in the weeks around the December and New Year holidays.
Daily visits to hospitals for heart failure increase by 33 percent in the four days after Christmas. Another study by the BMJ found a 15 percent spike in heart attack risk around Christmas and New Year’s.
Coined by Philip Ettinger in 1978, “holiday heart” syndrome refers to an acute cardiac arrhythmia, often atrial fibrillation, that occurs in otherwise healthy individuals after a drinking binge.
Ettinger and his co-evaluators initially recognized the trend in a study of patients admitted to the hospital for episodes of cardiac arrhythmia shortly after the holidays.
All of the patients had heavily consumed alcohol over the weekend or during festivities immediately prior to being evaluated.
“Normally because of all the stressors involved in the holiday period, individuals become lax on diet and sleep patterns are more irregular,” Anderson explained. “Individuals are put under extreme stress within the physiological system, cardiovascular in particular.”
People preoccupied with holiday plans can also forget to take prescription medications, making them even more vulnerable to heart-related issues.
High intakes of caffeine and salt, as well as holiday weight gain and extreme fluctuations in exercise routine, also exacerbate the risk for “holiday heart” syndrome.
Those experiencing common symptoms of “holiday heart” after consuming alcohol, such as dizziness, difficulty breathing, chest pain and loss of consciousness, should go to the ER.
The overwhelming majority of arrhythmias associated with “holiday heart” syndrome normally self-terminate once the individual ends their drinking binge, but nearly 30 percent of cases recur within a year.
Complications related to the condition include new or worsening heart failure, life-threatening arrhythmias, community-acquired pneumonia, stroke, heart attack and clotting (thromboembolism). Some episodes can even end in death.
Anderson emphasized the importance of keeping healthy habits to reduce the risk for “holiday heart” syndrome. One step is minimizing dietary intake of salty, fried and fatty foods, and replacing them with more fruits and vegetables.
Anderson also recommends regular rest and exercise, as well as consuming alcohol in moderation over the holidays, or abstaining when possible.
Monitoring vital signs, in particular blood pressure, is critical, especially for individuals with a family history of hypertension or high blood pressure.
Students honed their practical skills at the end of the presentation by screening each other’s blood pressure. The event not only enhanced the students’ education, but also armed them with the tools to educate their families and communities.
“The main goal of the event is education,” said Britney Travis, director of communications at Plaza College. “A healthy lifestyle doesn't start and stop with holiday heart, and taking care of yourself doesn’t only apply during the holidays.
“We have to start somewhere,” she added. “So if we can educate people on the importance of sleep, diet and exercise now, then hopefully it will transfer into the new year.”