Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house. Not a creature was stirring, but what about cholesterol plaques?
According to a study just published in the BMJ, it’s not mice moving that should be the concern. It’s the cholesterol plaques in the walls of arteries that provide blood and oxygen to your heart. When these plaques expand or break off and form clots, they can obstruct blood flow and lead to a heart attack, otherwise known as a myocardial infarction.
For the study, a team from Lund University (Moman A Mohammad, Sofia Karlsson, Jonathan Haddad, Björn Cederberg, Sasha Koul, David Erlinge), Danderyd’s University Hospital (Tomas Jernberg), Uppsala University (Bertil Lindahl), and Örebro University (Ole Fröbert) in Sweden analyzed data from the SWEDEHEART database, which includes all patients who have had symptoms of a heart attack and were admitted to a specialized cardiac care facility in Sweden.
The team aimed to determine whether myocardial infarctions were more likely to occur on major holidays (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, the Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter Eve, Easter Day, Easter Monday, and Midsummer holiday) or major football events (the World Cup and the European Championship tournaments). They compared the rates of heart attacks during these holidays and football tournaments with the heart attack rates during the 2 weeks before and 2 weeks after each holiday and the one year before and the one year after each sporting event. For the time period from 1998 to 2013, their analysis pulled up 283,014 cases of myocardial infarction from the database.
Based on their analysis, the risk of heart attacks was higher during the Christmas (Eve and Day), New Year’s (Eve and Day), and Midsummer holiday dates, but not during the Easter or sporting event dates. In general, the more common times for heart attacks were the last week of the calendar year, Mondays, and at 8 am. This doesn’t bode well for this year’s day before Christmas, which happens to be on a Monday. The highest observed risk of myocardial infarction was actually on Christmas Eve, when the risk of a heart attack jumped by 37%, with the highest risk time being 10 pm and not the morning hours.
This SWEDEHEART of a study is certainly not the first study to show how heart attack risk may vary by time of year, time of day, or event. Previous studies, such as one published in the journal Circulation, have revealed bumps in death rates from heart disease in the U.S. during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Similarly, a study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology found that myocardial infarction rates went up in a predominantly Muslim country during Islamic holidays. Of course, such studies can only show associations and cannot prove cause-and-effect.
Nonetheless, it is not surprising that Christmas Eve can be tough on the body, mind, and heart. So, take the following precautions this coming week:
- Check in with your doctor if you haven’t for a while. Don’t forget your health in the midst of the Holiday rush. Make sure that you don’t have any warning signs, especially if you have risk factors for heart disease.
- Remember to take your medications. That is, if you are already on them. Random new prescription medications are not good Secret Santa gifts.
- Be careful about what you eat and drink. Watch out for too much alcohol, too much salt, too much sugar, too much saturated fat, and too many artificial ingredients.
- Prevent predictable friction. Remember that chorus in Paul McCartney’s song “Wonderful Christmastime,” that goes, “ding-dong, ding-dong”? This is what you are if you say or do something that you know will trigger friction and arguments during a family gathering. Why engage in a re-run of an argument that will never get resolved? Instead, consider holding your tongue, metaphorically and not actually, which would be weird.
- Be careful about overexerting yourself. Before you shovel snow, chop some wood, or try ot climb down a chimney, make sure that you are in good enough physical shape. Also, make sure there is snow before you shovel, because you don’t want to look like an idiot.
- Have appropriate expectations. Don’t let advertising, commercials, marketing, or other people’s boasting create unrealistic expectations for the Holidays. When I was in medical school, a neurology resident once told me that happiness equals reality minus expectations. There can be great disappointment when expectations for a Holiday are high, such as when someone gives you elf suspenders for a a Secret Santa gift when you really wanted elf pants.
- Be careful on social media. Other people may be on edge too and could let out their frustrations on you. Messages could be easily misinterpreted.
- Tell other people if you are lonely. If your “friends” judge you for being lonely, they aren’t really your friends and you need to get new ones anyway. You’d be surprised how many other people feel the same as you do without revealing it. Many people may even feel lonely without realizing it, as I wrote previously for Forbes.
- Tell other people if you are experiencing symptoms. Pay attention to any chest pain, chest pressure, shortness of breath, dizziness, lightheartedness, or arm tingling that you may be having.
- Keep things in perspective. Remember the Holidays is just a time of the year and will pass. You won’t have to listen to Madonna’s rendition of “Santa Baby” for long.
Most of all, remember that it’s OK if you don’t feel that “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Everyone’s life is different. Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture and let what happens over a few days affect the rest of your year.