Health Advocate Blog

The Cold, Heart Facts: How Winter Affects Heart Health

With a big snowfall, many hospitals fill up with heart attack patients – with the likely catalyst often attributed to the physical effort in trying to clear off sidewalks and driveways.

But it’s not just hospitals in snowy towns that are seeing an increase in heart attack patients. More heart attacks occur in the winter across the entire country – by some estimate, roughly 50 percent more than in summer months, with even higher spikes in some snow-less Sunbelt states. Blame falling temperatures and other aspects of winter’s wrath…not just seasonal snow.

Here’s why a sudden drop in temperature and decreased daylight can hurt your cardiovascular health – especially if you already have high cholesterol, hypertension or other risk factors:

Decreased blood flow: Cold temperatures constrict arteries, leading to decreased blood flow to make your heart work harder (even if you’re not shoveling snow).

Blood clot risk: Cold-constricted arteries can also trigger tears or splits in the plaque that lines the walls of arteries. When that happens, blood clots can form, triggering a heart attack or stroke (which also occurs more frequently during winter).

Vitamin D deficiency: Winter’s shorter days mean less sunlight – and less Vitamin D, which is primarily absorbed through the skin. Although inconclusive, some studies suggest an association between low D level and cardiovascular disease.

Try these tips to protect your heart health during winter’s wrath:

Heed Mom’s advice to dress warmly. When you shiver or feel uncomfortable, it can raise heart rate and blood pressure. In addition to a “warm” coat, wear a hat to prevent heat loss (one-third of body heat escapes from an uncovered head), gloves, and especially a scarf if you have asthma, COPD or other respiratory conditions.

Start slowly and don’t overdo it. When it’s frigid, try to exercise indoors. Short intervals of activity alternating with periods of rest are best during cold temperatures – especially when exercising outdoors or if you’ve started a new exercise regimen (take note, New Year’s Resolutioners).

Curb the comfort foods. It’s not just those holiday feasts that trigger wintertime weight gain. During the cold and darker winter months, many are more likely to overeat – especially on high-calorie, low-nutrient foods.

Mind your meds. Considering that cold weather may constrict arteries, it’s especially important to take any medications such as blood thinners and aspirin as prescribed during cold weather.

Consider a Vitamin D supplement. Ask your doctor if you might benefit from supplemental D. The recommended daily intake for adults is 600-800 units (IUs).

Don’t smoke. It’s unwise 365 days a year, but nicotine also potently constricts blood vessels, causing a “double whammy” impact.

If you have questions or concerns about your heart health, talk to your primary care physician. Don’t have a doctor lined up?  If you’re a Health Advocate member, call us for help locating a local, in-network doctor. We can even help you schedule the appointment, transfer your medical records, and more!