Vacations Can be a Heart-Stopper

If you're at risk of a heart attack, take it easy on your next trip

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HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, July 23, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Vacations may be great for the psyche and the soul, but watch out for your heart.

Eighty-four percent of vacationers engage in behaviors that may increase their risk for a heart attack, according to a new Harris Interactive poll.

And heart attack is the most common cause of death while on vacation, said Dr. Karol Watson, a cardiologist and director of the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Cholesterol and Hypertension Management.

That comes as a surprise to many people, Watson said, but it makes sense when you think about how most of us act on vacation. "We try to cram too much into too little time," she said.

According to the poll, 53 percent of vacationers said they feel stress at times while vacationing; 34 percent eat too much; 36 percent drink too much alcohol; and 59 percent of those who haven't been physically active overexert themselves. And 37 percent haven't been checked for high blood pressure, an important risk factor for heart attack, within three months of their departure.

The poll was conducted in May and included 2,386 U.S. adults, including 1,165 who took vacations within the past year.

"The risk [of heart attack on vacation] is generally limited to people who already have high risk of heart attacks, such as a history of coronary disease, or a combination of elevated risk factors such as high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels," said Willem Kop. He is associate professor of medical and clinical psychology at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and has published research on the link between vacations and heart attack.

In his research, Kop evaluated 92 patients who had had a heart attack during a vacation abroad. He found the risk was highest during the first two days of vacation. The results were published last year in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

Kop compared 67 vacationers who had had heart attacks with 30 patients who hadn't been on vacation but were admitted to a hospital with heart attacks. He also studied 67 vacationers with medical emergencies not related to their heart.

He found that heart attacks on vacation occurred more often among people who traveled by car rather than other forms of transportation, and among those staying in a tent or mobile home rather than a hotel.

"Extreme heat, cold, physical exercise, high-density traffic, lack of privacy and conflict can all act as triggers," Kop said.

Another way to minimize risk, Watson said, is to stick to your usual routine as much as possible while on vacation. "If you are used to getting up at 6 a.m. and jogging, do that. If you take medication, take them at the same time."

While it might seem obvious to bring along while vacationing any medications you take regularly, Watson knows people often forget. During a recent weekend seminar she ran for women who had had a heart attack, two of them forgot their heart medication. "I had to call in the prescriptions for them," she said.

As for vacation meals, "everyone is going to indulge a little bit, but try to eat sensibly," Watson said. "Have dessert, but maybe cheesecake one night and berries the next."

And before departing, "talk to your doctor if you know you have risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol," she said. Also, describe your vacation plans to your doctor.

Neither Watson nor Kop are anti-vacation.

"It is very important to emphasize that the majority of individuals who go on vacation do not have heart attacks, even among those with known elevated risk," Kop said.

A relaxing break from the day-to-day grind can be great for you, whether you have heart problems or not, Kop added. "A few studies have shown now that taking regular vacations actually reduces the risk of heart problems."

The Harris poll was sponsored by Biovail Corp., a maker of a heart disease medication.

More information

To learn more about heart attack, visit the American Heart Association.

SOURCES: Karol Watson, M.D., Ph.D., cardiologist and director, University of California, Los Angeles Center for Cholesterol and Hypertension Management, Los Angeles; Willem Kop, Ph.D., associate professor, medical and clinical psychology, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Md.; May 2004 Harris Interactive poll

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