It turns out that winter brings more than just cold temperatures, ice, and snow. We know that cold weather can cause influenza, frost bite, and even Raynaud’s disease – a condition marked by reduced blood flow in the body. The winter also comes with a lack of sunshine and vitamin D which can lead to depression.
But heart problems? Many people may not know that cold weather can actually have an impact on your heart health. This is significant because heart disease in the No. 1 killer of men and women in the United States.
Heart disease statistics
• Cardiovascular disease is the leading global cause of death, accounting for 17.3 million deaths per year, a number that is expected to grow to more than 23.6 million by 2030.
• Heart disease is the leading cause of death for people of most racial/ethnic groups in the United States, including African Americans, Hispanics and Caucasians.
• Coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease, killing nearly 380,000 people annually.
• In the United States, someone has a heart attack every 34 seconds, and every 60 seconds, someone dies from a heart disease-related event.
• About 720,000 people in the U.S. suffer heart attacks each year. Of these, 515,000 are a first heart attack and 205,000 happen in people who have already had a heart attack.
So how do winter and cold weather cause health problems? Cold weather puts a strain on your heart due to the fact that the cold temperatures can cause your blood vessels and arteries to narrow.
This causes restriction in the blood flow of the heart, which reduces the amount of oxygen available to it. As a result, your blood pressure increases.
When there is a sudden increase in your blood pressure due to the cold weather, you are at a higher risk for a number of potentially life-threatening heart problems such as heart attack or stroke. This is especially true when you are outside engaging in strenuous activities like shoveling snow or putting up holiday decorations.
The cold temperatures can also lead to hypothermia which can have an effect on the heart. Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops to dangerously low levels, or below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. With hypothermia, your heart cannot function properly. The lack of circulation that comes with hypothermia can also cause frostbite. If a person develops hypothermia and does not realize it, or it goes untreated, this can lead to heart and respiratory failure and even death.
Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, dizziness, hunger, nausea, rapid breathing, trouble speaking, confusion, lack of coordination, fatigue and an increased heart rate.
How to avoid heart problems this winter:
• Avoid strenuous outdoor activities and over exertion. If you must be outside for a period of time, remember to take breaks and go inside well before you start to feel too tired.
• Dress warm. While hypothermia usually takes a little while to affect the body in dangerous ways, frostbite can develop within minutes. So make sure to dress warm and properly cover your head, ears, fingers, and feet.
• Beware of drinking alcohol in winter. Alcohol can make your body feel warmer than it really is. Therefore, your body doesn’t realize the effects the cold temperatures are really having on it. This puts you at a greater risk for hypothermia. Avoid heavy drinking when you know you’ll be outside at some point or stick to non-alcoholic beverages.
Dr. Samadi is a board-certified urologic oncologist trained in open and traditional and laparoscopic surgery and is an expert in robotic prostate surgery. He is chairman of urology, chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital and professor of urology at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is a medical correspondent for the Fox News Channel's Medical A-Team and the chief medical correspondent for am970 in New York City. Learn more at roboticoncology.com. Visit Dr. Samadi's blog at SamadiMD.com. Follow Dr. Samadi on Twitter and Facebook.