Heart attacks at Christmas

What do you get when you put Uncle Baz, Aunt Meryl, several cousins, 70kg of prawns, a double-decker Pav, and a heated political discussion in the same room? Christmas. And according to some studies – an increased risk of a heart attack.

A study out of Sweden found that the risk of having a heart attack increases by 37% at Christmastime – and peaks at 10pm on Christmas Eve. Another one out of the US showed that cardiac mortality is highest during December and January – specifically around Christmas and New Year.

The thing is, Americans and Swedes generally experience a white Christmas – and despite how smokin’ hot Jon Snow is, snow itself is pretty damn cold. Scientists have known for a while that low temperatures and heart attacks go together. So, could it be that the cold was causing the increased prevalence of heart attacks in these studies and not Christmas?

Melbourne-based researchers addressed this question by analysing 25 years of death records from New Zealand – where Christmas is a summer affair. They found that between 1988 and 2013, there were more heart-related deaths in the winter than in the summer. Which makes sense – and aligns with previous research. BUT they also saw a higher number of deaths during the Christmas period compared to the weeks before and after. 

It’s now widely accepted that Christmas – cold or hot – is associated with a significant increase in death by heart attack. But why does this happen? Researchers speculate that it could come down to three reasons:

1.      Abrupt changes in travel, eating, drinking, exercising, and working patterns

2.      People delaying treatment until after the holidays

3.      Travellers taking longer to find competent medical care due to unfamiliar surrounds

Interestingly, the Melbourne-based researchers pointed out that earthquakes, war, and even penalty shootouts for World Cup soccer matches are also linked to higher rates of heart attacks. And this got us thinking. The reasons listed above should certainly not be discounted, but we believe that stress has a lot to add to this story, too.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – for some. But for people dealing with the loss of a loved one, a relationship breakdown or financial woes, Christmas can morph into a source of stress, heartbreak, sadness and/or anxiety.

Based on data from our app users – we know that emotional states affect your resting heart rate. This tells us something important: if you want to look after your heart, it’s not just a matter of eating right, avoiding alcohol and going for a jog – it’s a matter of taking care of your mind, too.