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Heart Attacks Peak During the Holidays

People put off going to the doctor or overindulge in unhealthy habits, experts say

SUNDAY, Dec. 9, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- The holiday season is also the season for heart attack, warns cardiologist Dr. Keith Churchwell, associate director of the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.

According to Churchwell, a look at a U.S. database of 53 million deaths occurring between 1973 and 2001 reveals that deaths from heart disease peak in December/January, with spikes on Christmas and New Year's Day.

There are a number of possible reasons for the phenomenon, Churchwell said.

People with symptoms of heart trouble prior to the holidays tend to delay going to the doctor.

"They do so because of obligations at home, not wanting to spoil holiday fun, not wanting to deal with the possibility of going to the hospital and being taken care of over the holiday period. As a result, they are less likely to see their physicians over this period of time in order to get the acute care they may need," Churchwell said in a prepared statement.

During the holidays, many people take a break from their diet and exercise programs.

"Some people have spent a significant amount of time over the year trying to meet their cardiovascular goals and, when the holidays arrive, they fall off their programs," Churchwell said. "There are many explanations for this. It's the holiday time, you get very busy, the amount of time you spend eating out and eating over at friends and family becomes more than usual. Finding excuses not to stay on an exercise regimen becomes easier to do."

Alcohol consumption can increase during the holidays, which can contribute to something called "holiday heart syndrome."

"Alcohol has a toxic effect on the heart muscle in a number of ways, but, in particular, it can lead to an irritation of the heart muscles, particularly the top chamber of the heart -- the atrium. This can lead to atrial fibrillation -- an abnormal heart rhythm that is a classic finding of the holiday heart," Churchwell said.

He also noted that the hectic pace of the holiday season can cause people to forget to take medications such as blood thinners and pills for high blood pressure. Such lapses can lead to acute coronary trouble.

More information

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has more about heart health.

SOURCE: Vanderbilt University Medical Center, news release, Nov. 27, 2007
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