By Dr. Katie E. Golden, MD

The holiday season is always full of traditions that are special to this time of year: festive gatherings, cherished recipes, gift-giving. And don’t forget that yearly spike in . . . heart attacks. For years, experts have noticed that there seems to be an increase in people having life-threatening cardiac events over the Christmas and New Year’s. And a more recent retrospective study from Sweden looked at 16 years of data to find that there was indeed a spike on Christmas Eve and Christmas in particular.  Most of us deal with enough stress during the holidays, without worrying about an increased risk of a heart attack. So we will go through some reasons for the Christmas-related coronary, when it’s time to see the doctor, and some tips for how to stay happy and healthy this season.


Why do heart attacks increase around the holidays?


Even though we know that more people have heart attacks at the end of December, experts are still trying to understand why this phenomenon occurs. But some of the proposed explanations include:

  • Stress: There is strong evidence to suggest that spikes in negative emotions and psychosocial stress increase the risk of a heart attack. 
  • Alcohol: Many people tend to drink more than normal over the holidays. And this has not only been associated with increased coronary events, but also heart arrhythmia and the notorious ‘holiday heart syndrome’.
  • Food: Most of us are not paying too close attention to our diet amidst holiday parties and festive meals. And many of these foods contain an (un)healthy dose of salt, sugar, and saturated fats. (Although I will forever maintain that calories don’t count on Christmas day.)
  • Medication non-compliance: Holiday social calendars, travel, and long to-do lists can be pretty disruptive to our normal routines. And this includes remembering to take daily medications. 
  • Less sleep and exercise: Daily meds aren’t the only routines that can take a hit. I am sure I am not the only one who has gotten less sleep, or cancelled my morning workout, in exchange for celebrating the season with friends. ‘I’ll be better about it in the new year’, am I right?     
  • Cold weather: There is some interesting research that shows a correlation between cold temperatures and heart attacks. But we also see the holiday heart attack spike in cities like Los Angeles, so we know this can’t be the full explanation.
  • Respiratory infections: Infections that impact the lungs and cause breathing problems can put more strain on the heart, too. And research has shown a correlation between illnesses like the flu and heart attacks. 


Or maybe people are just desperate to get away from annoying relatives and in-laws. Note: there is no actual evidence to support that theory. 


How do I know if I am having a heart attack?


No matter why it happens, it is important to know some of the warning signs of a heart attack. That way you can help keep yourself and loved ones safe. And know when it’s time to press pause on the celebration and head to the ER.


A heart attack can feel different for everyone. And not everyone has chest pain as their main symptom. Women and people with diabetes, in particular, are more likely to experience atypical symptoms. Some of the symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Chest discomfort, of all varieties. Sharp, stabbing, dull, squeezing, tightness, pressure-like, cramp-like, heaviness. Left, right, front, back. 
  • Left arm, shoulder, or neck pain. Pain coming from the heart can often be referred to these areas. 
  • Nausea and/or vomiting. This can be present alongside pain, or in the complete absence of pain. 
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing. 
  • Feeling excessively weak or light-headed


And any of these symptoms are even more concerning when accompanied by uncontrollable sweating. Or a dusky appearance in the skin.


Don’t talk yourself out of a medical evaluation because you think you think your symptoms are not typical of a heart attack. In the ER, we can run some quick and simple tests to make sure you are okay.


Tips for staying healthy this holiday season


Okay, time for something we all need this time of year: a deep exhale. And a reminder that we can all step back from the hustle and bustle, and make small changes to keep ourselves healthy this holiday season. So here may be some helpful tips to help you through:

  • It’s okay to say no to parties, gatherings, and events when you’d rather prioritize your own self-care (aka staying home on the couch watching ‘Elf’, going to bed early, and waking up hangover free on Saturday morning). Avoiding large gatherings may also help with decreasing your risk of certain respiratory infections as well (wink wink). 
  • Take time for yourself. The holidays might feel like they are about communing and giving to others, but it’s equally as important to prioritize yourself. And finding the time to step away. So take a nap, go to bed early, take a walk, make time for your favorite physical activity, or just take a peaceful moment in your bathroom while your mother-in-law critiques your crooked Christmas tree downstairs. 
  • It’s also to walk away from stressful or heated moments among family. A great time to take that walk and get some light exercise. Killing two birds with one stone. Boom.
  • Try trading in a glass of wine for a glass of water. Or a chocolate truffle for a brussel sprout. Small changes are big changes.
  • You deserve a vacation, but your medications don’t need one too. So take them every day, and let them do the work while you sit back and relax.


From all of us here at MEMA, we wish you and your loved ones a happy and healthy holiday season. And for your sake, we hope you don’t have to come see us in the ER. But if you need us, we are here for you 24/7. Just like Santa. Please bring cookies. (I kid, don’t worry about the cookies. Just get here.)