Keeping Your Heart Safe in Cold Weather

A woman runs in cold, wet weather.
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The problems of cold weather from slippery roads to hypothermia usually aren't much of a concern for Floridians. This winter, things have been a little different.

As we breathe in the unusually chilly air, there's one threat that is less well-known, but no less dangerous: heart ailments. In some cases, cold weather can trigger cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks, in people with existing heart problems.

Various studies have shown that heart attacks are more prevalent in cold weather. Rates of hospitalization and mortality due to heart attacks and other cardiovascular events also seem to peak when temperatures drop. Further, risk of heart failure in existing heart patients increases 45 times in winter.

In cold weather, your heart must work harder to keep you warm. At the same time, low temperatures can cause blood vessels to narrow, resulting in restricted blood flow. That means important organs, including the heart, can become deprived of oxygen.

Older adults, and people with existing heart problems, are the most vulnerable to cardiac events triggered by cold weather.

As the unusually cold weather settles in locally, our population is at higher risk for cardiovascular events, particularly the elderly. Any vigorous activity in frigid cold temperatures can increase the stress on the heart and subsequently lead to a cardiovascular event (chest pain, heart attack, palpitations, heart failure). While we do not completely understand the mechanisms for all of these symptoms/events, we do know that being prepared for cold weather and avoiding excessive exertive activity could help reduce your overall risk for cardiovascular events.

Winter can bring other potential heart perils, too. Those with heart problems are at an increased risk of chest infections like influenza and pneumonia, which can put extra strain on the heart yet another reason to get your flu vaccine as early in the season as possible.
As you brave the cold, be vigilant to notice symptoms that might point to heart ailments. Warning signs include dizziness or lightheadedness, chest pain, nausea, profuse sweating and shortness of breath. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, especially if you have already been diagnosed with a heart condition, call 911 immediately.

Be prepared for the cold weather and stock up on groceries and warm clothing. It's okay to ask for help from family or neighbors. If you have any symptoms that lead you to suspect something is not right do not hesitate to call 911.

You may not be able to totally avoid going outside in blustery weather, but here are some simple steps you can take to protect your heart health.

Eat healthy. Your diet plays a huge role in maintaining your cardiovascular health. Load up on fatty fish (such as salmon and sardines), nuts, berries and other fruits, legumes and antioxidant-rich veggies like sweet potatoes, red peppers, spinach and carrots.

Layer up. The warmer your body is, the easier it is for your heart to pump properly in cold temps. Protecting your face can help minimize the impact of chilly air on your lungs. Wear a hat, and wrap a scarf over your mouth so that the air you breathe in is warm.

Get the flu vaccine. Flu, pneumonia and other chest infections can be a recipe for disaster in heart patients. To help protect against infection, be sure to always get your flu vaccine ideally before winter sets in.

Modify exercise habits. If you normally take your daily walk in the morning, you may want to postpone it until the afternoon, when it's sunnier and warmer. If the forecast calls for sustained cold, its best to move workouts inside.

Also, it's important to avoid overexertion. An ailing heart is already working harder than usual, so strenuous exercise in cold conditions can put a potentially dangerous strain on the cardiovascular system. Try light exercise, like yoga and stretching, instead.

Keep an eye on blood pressure. Blood pressure tends to rise in winter, so it's a good idea to monitor your levels frequently to ensure they're staying within a safe range.

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