SUNDAY, Sept. 5, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Skiers and other winter sports tourists who visit the Alps are at increased risk for heart attack due to low temperatures, high altitude and inadequate conditioning for intense physical exertion, finds a new study.
The risk is greatest during the first two days of vacation, said a research team of cardiologists at the Medical University of Innsbruck, Austria, who focused on winter tourists in the Tyrolean Alps.
"Every year, millions of tourists visit the Tyrolean Alps to participate in a variety of winter sports, each of which carries a certain risk of accident and injury," study senior author Dr. Bernhard Metzler, an associate professor of cardiology at the university, said in a news release from the European Society of Cardiology.
"Previously it had been shown that sudden cardiac death accounts for a staggering 40 percent of the total fatalities amongst winter sports tourists in the Austrian Alps and, of these, acute [heart attack] is the leading cause," he added.
Metzler and colleagues analyzed data from 170 patients who suffered a heart attack during a winter sports vacation between 2006 and 2010. About 56 percent of the patients suffered their heart attack within the first two days of beginning intense physical activity, although just 19 percent had a known cardiac condition.
Prior to their vacation, more than half of the patients got less than the minimum levels of physical activity recommended by the European Society of Cardiology.
Altitude may have been a major factor, the study authors noted. The patients' heart attacks occurred at a mean altitude of 1,350 meters (4,429 feet), compared to the mean altitude of 170 meters (557 feet) where they lived.
The researchers also found that about 70 percent of the patients had at least two risk factors for coronary artery disease, including smoking, diabetes or high cholesterol levels.
People planning winter sports holidays in the mountains need to prepare themselves with regular exercise beforehand, the study authors suggested. Once at the resort, they should increase their level of physical activity gradually, they added.
The researchers presented their findings last week at the European Society of Cardiology Congress, in Stockholm, Sweden.
The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about heart attack warning signs and prevention.