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Doctors warn that heart attacks spike this time of year

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

There's a lot of focus on viruses this season and the threat of a tripledemic (ph). But heart doctors say one health risk that doesn't get much attention is the holiday heart attack spike. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports nearly 800,000 Americans have a heart attack each year. And amid the rush of the holidays, it's easy to miss the warning signs.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Donald Lloyd-Jones is a cardiologist at Northwestern University in Chicago and the former president of the American Heart Association. He told me, for years, he and his colleagues have noted a trend.

DONALD LLOYD-JONES: We do see a spike in heart attacks and strokes as we head into the holiday season. And of course, heart attack and stroke are still the leading causes of death worldwide. And that includes the U.S.

AUBREY: The data pointing to a winter spike goes back a few decades. The weather could be part of the explanation since blood vessels can constrict or narrow in cold temperatures.

LLOYD-JONES: And so if you already have compromised blood flow to your heart, that sort of spasm or narrowing down of the arteries in response to cold air can make things worse.

AUBREY: But it's not just the cold. This trend has also been documented in Southern California, where scientists examined death certificates and found about 33% more deaths in Los Angeles County in December and January compared to the summer months.

LLOYD-JONES: There is a broad and shallow dip through the summer months. And then there is a very large spike in the last week of the year between Christmas and New Year's.

AUBREY: He says people tend to get off their routines during the holidays. We tend to eat more, drink more, sleep less, perhaps be more stressed. And some people forget to take their medications.

LLOYD-JONES: If you're already at risk for heart disease or stroke, you know, the changes that happen in our blood pressure with stressors - especially if you add in, you know, a mix of alcohol and not sleeping - all those things really push our body pretty hard.

AUBREY: And in the midst of celebrating holidays, people may miss the warning signs of a heart attack.

LLOYD-JONES: Heavy, heavy pressure in the chest that's new or unexpected, unexplained shortness of breath, especially sudden onset.

AUBREY: But not everybody gets these symptoms. Dr. Tina Shah is a cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente. She's based in Seattle.

TINA SHAH: Dizziness, lightheadedness, feeling, like, faint. And it's also important to remember that sometimes we don't have these exact textbook sort of symptoms, especially in women. They can have more subtle symptoms.

AUBREY: She says she's seen instances when people ignore that gut feeling that something is off or wrong.

SHAH: People feel like, I'm out with family. We're doing all this fun stuff. I don't want to be, you know, the damper in the party. I don't want to disappoint my family. I do not feel well. But I'll just hold off on, you know, seeking medical attention until I'm back home or until the holidays or the festivities are over.

AUBREY: Despite the crowds, inconvenience or expense of an ER visit, Dr. Shah says it's better to be safe than sorry.

SHAH: I always recommend to err on the side of caution, to seek attention right away.

AUBREY: Doctors can do an EKG or bloodwork. They can tell whether you're having a heart attack.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.