Dr. Akshay Khandelwal is an interventional cardiologist at Henry Ford Hospital. He says: deaths from cardiac and non-cardiac causes are higher around Christmas and New Year's Day.
Although cold weather increases strain on the heart, the same spike in holiday deaths was observed in warm climates. Researchers feel one cause may be that people delay going to the hospital during a holiday.
The holidays can be a heartwarming time for friends and families to get together and share good food and libations. But excessive celebrating can lead to heart attacks and other medical emergencies beginning the day before Thanksgiving and continuing through the holidays.
Overindulging in alcohol and salty, fatty foods can also send people to the emergency room.
"Dietary indiscretions, such as adding too much salt, can cause congestive heart failure in people who have heart disease. "People are visiting relatives and may not be compliant about taking their medications."
If someone is on a blood pressure medicine that has a diuretic added, and he or she doesn't take it as directed, the added salt can lead to increased stress on the heart. "Some people who are traveling might skip their diuretics to avoid frequent trips to the bathroom," Carter said.
"It's not just cardiac problems," he said. "We see a lot of alcohol-related trauma with students home from college and going out drinking with their old high school friends."
Drinking alcohol can lead to atrial fibrillation - a condition known as holiday heart - that necessitates a trip to the emergency room. Atrial fibrillation is a common heart rhythm disturbance seen as people age or in those with high blood pressure, underlying heart disease or an undetected valve problem.
But holiday heart is often seen in younger patients.
"Alcohol is a known direct toxin to the heart," said Dr. Peter Dourdoufis, a cardiologist at Portsmouth Regional Hospital.
Alcohol can irritate the heart muscle and increases the body's autopilot response to boost blood pressure and heart rate. The heart's natural pacemaker gets thrown off, and so does the heartbeat.
"Patients will experience the sudden onset of rapid heart rate, palpitations, dizziness and shortness of breath," Dourdoufis said.
Some holiday heart patients may also experience chest discomfort.
"The heart rate will be about 180 to 200 beats per minute," Dourdoufis said. A normal resting heart rate for adults is between 60 and 100 beats a minute.
Another danger is the Christmas coronary, or sudden death by heart attack.
"The biggest days of the year for heart attacks are Christmas Day, the day after Christmas and New Year's Day," Dourdoufis said. "This is mostly due to holiday stress in general."
And stress is not just caused by family members who push buttons. It can also be caused by loneliness or sadness during what is supposed to be a happy time of year.
Some people really do get a "broken heart," Carter said. "It is a rare phenomenon in people who generally do not have any heart disease."
People with broken heart syndrome may have sudden chest pain or think they're having a heart attack. These broken heart syndrome symptoms may be brought on by the heart's reaction to a surge of stress hormones such as adrenaline. In broken heart syndrome, a part of the heart temporarily enlarges and doesn't pump well, a condition called cardiomyopathy.
Symptoms of broken heart syndrome are treatable and the condition usually reverses itself in about a week.
In another holiday health risk, people tend to put off seeking medical help during the holidays or are reluctant to get care if traveling to an unfamiliar place, Dourdoufis said.
And there are other social factors that increase emergency room visits over the holidays.
Dr. Robert Hulefeld, chief of emergency services at York Hospital in Maine, said the area sees an increase in people visiting relatives over the holidays.
"Some will come to visit their elderly parents that they haven't seen for awhile," Hulefeld said. "They see that they just don't look right, and will bring them to the emergency room."
Hulefeld said many primary care practice offices are closed for a few days at a time over the holidays, so people will go to the emergency room with acute- and urgent care-level complaints.
"There are also a lot of college students back home," Hulefeld said. "The day after Thanksgiving, we usually see double the volumes in our emergency room at York Hospital and the free-standing emergency clinic in Wells. We usually double up on the coverage for Black Friday and the weekend."
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