Tina Shah, MD, on keeping heart attacks at bay during the holidays

Tina Shah, MD

Studies show that heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems spike during the winter and especially during the holidays. Tina Shah, MD, cardiologist with Washington Permanente Medical Group, was recently quoted in The Wall Street Journal on the seasonal factors that can increase health risks, as well as the warning signs of heart attack that people should look out for.

Dr. Shah noted that stress from travel, family gatherings, less sleep, and busy schedules can contribute to heart issues. “It’s important to remember to pace yourself,” she said. 

While heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States throughout the year, more cardiac deaths occur between December 25 and January 1 than any other time of the year. In California, emergency department visits for atrial fibrillation are significantly higher on Christmas and New Year’s Day. 

The winter combination of cold weather and respiratory viruses, including the flu and COVID-19, place added stress on the heart. This affects breathing and oxygen levels, leading to inflammation. Disruptions to routines, diet, and sleep can also elevate risks. Compounding the problem: People are less likely to seek medical care and more likely to forget to take their medications during the holidays. 

Related story: “Wall Street Journal interviews Permanente physicians on heart disease, stroke study”

When it comes to holiday eating, Dr. Shah sees heart failure worsen in patients who aren’t careful with their food and drink choices. Indulging in salt-heavy meals and alcohol can cause fluid to build up, leading to shortness of breath and requiring treatment with IV medications. Even one salty, unhealthy meal can be enough to trigger symptoms.

Heart attack warning signs include chest pain or pain in the left arm, neck, or jaw. Symptoms in women can include nausea, lightheadedness, back pain, and fatigue. Dr. Shah said that signs of heart failure include shortness of breath, especially if you haven’t done any physical activity, and swollen legs. Bloating, stomach discomfort, and loss of appetite are also possible symptoms.

Related story: “Emergency care for heart attacks and strokes rebounds”

A dry cough that doesn’t go away is another cause for concern, said Dr. Shah, as is sudden weight gain of 2 to 3 pounds overnight or 5 pounds in a week. 

Read the full story, “Why Heart Attacks Rise During the Holiday Season,” in The Wall Street Journal (subscription may be required).