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Why Do Holidays Raise Heart Disease Risk?

People tend to have binge drinking during the holiday season say Christmas, New Year, Thanksgiving or during weddings, graduations, or other occasions for celebration. During these days, it is very common for people including healthy young adults to develop arrhythmia, most frequently atrial fibrillation (AF), after several days of binge drinking. Binge drinking typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks or women consume 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours.

Holiday Heart Syndrome (HHS) is the name given to this condition. It was first reported by Dr. Philip Ettinger in 1978 when heart rhythm abnormalities were detected in 24 study participants who had no history of heart disease. Individuals who are sensitive to alcohol can also have HHS by consuming only moderate amounts of alcohol. HHS is usually temporary, and symptoms can resolve themselves within 24 hours. But for some people, especially those with heart disease or who is at increased risk for heart disease, HHS can pose a special risk.

AF is an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications. Some arrhythmias associated with HHS after binge drinking can lead to sudden death. According to a 2004 study published in journal ‘Circulation’, Dec. 25, Dec. 26, and Jan. 1 are the 3 dates people are most likely to die from heart disease: an overall increase of 5 percent more heart-related deaths during the holiday season.

The AF that occurs with HHS is mostly paroxysmal, meaning that the arrhythmia begins very suddenly and, after some period of time, stops suddenly. People who experience this condition will have the sudden onset of symptoms, including a rapid, irregular heart rate, shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting and even chest pain.

For many people who develop AF, the arrhythmia is generally caused by underlying heart disease, aging, hypertension, obesity, or a sedentary lifestyle, though no cause can be identified for many other people with this arrhythmia. In HHS specifically, the AF is mainly caused by alcohol consumption.

Nevertheless, today HHS is further considered to be the result of a combination of factors beyond just drinking alcohol. These include, the onset of cold weather as winter begins, reduced hospital staffing during the holidays, increased depression and emotional stress, overindulgence of fatty, salty foods and caffeine, and delay in seeking medical attention.

During cold weather, blood vessels constrict that raises blood pressure. Blood also clots more readily. Cold temperatures increase strain on the heart, and too much physical exertion can worsen the burden and trigger a heart attack. Eating a meal extremely high in saturated fats might help trigger plaque rupture in diseased coronary arteries. Overindulging in salt can create excess cardiac stress in people with hypertension or heart failure. Holidays can cause depression especially among older people for whom the holidays can invoke a sense of loss for happier times, or for loved ones who are no longer present. This is a known risk factor for heart attack.

Meanwhile, people who develop chest pain or other symptoms during the holidays are likely to try hoping the symptoms away, or attributing them to some other cause like overeating and delay in seeking medical help. When one is having a heart attack, time is of the essence. A delay of a few minutes can make the difference between surviving with a healthy heart, surviving with a very damaged heart or dying.

In order to prevent HHS, one should limit alcohol intake, especially for someone who has had an episode of HHS after a small amount of alcohol, and those who have or at risk of heart disease. In the meantime, one should not overeat; stay calm and avoid stress; reduce salty food intake; consume less chocolate and other foods rich in caffeine like coffee, tea, certain soda and energy drinks. Lastly, one should stay hydrated. Exhaustion, a change in eating patterns, and physical exertion and overconsumption of alcohol and caffeinated drinks can all cause dehydration. It is advisable to drink plenty of water throughout the day, especially when exercising and before, during, and after parties.




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