More people die from heart attacks during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day than any other week of the year, with Christmas Day being the deadliest day of all, according to the American Heart Association.
Health experts cite a number of reasons for the increase, including greater levels of stress, unhealthy eating, and alcohol consumption.
The phenomenon has become so pervasive that health experts have developed a name for it: holiday heart syndrome. University of Washington Medical Center cardiologist Eugene Yang said unhealthy choices this time of year can land people in the hospital, and can even be deadly.
"It's not just an issue that holiday heart is a benign condition," he said, "It actually is a very potentially serious condition that causes people to develop heart failure symptoms."
Holiday stress often stems from excessive relationship anxiety which tends to peak during the holidays when families and loved ones experience conflict. At the same time, this stress can be made worse by a lack of exercise, which health experts say can relieve stress. Not enough sleep can also increase stress and can negatively impact the way the heart works.
New research shows the average adult sleeps about 40 minutes less during the month of December, and those who host holiday gatherings lose close to an hour and a half each day preparing to have guests in their home and during the stay.
Alcohol consumption tends to skyrocket during the holidays and can pose a threat, even to people who have no known risk factors. For many binge drinking leads to an irregular heartbeat, a condition commonly linked to an increased risk for stroke.
"Certain people might be more predisposed to it, but you can have no history of any heart-related conditions, and drink excessively, or consume too much alcohol during the holidays, and you could create a situation where you develop atrial fibrillation, congestive heart failure, even in the absence of any preexisting risk factors," said Dr. Yang.
Heart doctors urge people to take it easy when it comes to eating foods high is sugar, salt, and fat, as well as alcoholic beverages, and suggest balancing these with plenty of water and healthy foods, such as a salad every day.
Additionally, health experts recommend making time for stress-relieving measures, such as prayer, exercise, and plenty of sleep.
Seek help immediately if you or someone you are with experiences warning signs of a heart attack, such as chest pain and shortness of breath. In some cases, particularly in women, heart attack symptoms can be more subtle, such as pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, back, arm, or shoulder, feeling nauseous, light-headed, or unusually tired.
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