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  • During the holidays, experts say it’s key to take steps to protect your health.
  • Stress from travel, seasonal viruses, and forgotten medication can all increase the risk of cardiac events.
  • According to research, fatal heart attacks occur most often during the holiday season
  • Improved diet, exercise, and commitment to your medications can reduce these risks

This holiday season it’s important to take care of your heart health, especially if you have risk factors like atrial fibrillation or high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

The AHA reports that this time of year is when serious cardiac events are more likely to occur and when cardiac-related deaths are most likely to happen.

While that news may seem dire, there are clear steps you can take to stay heart-healthy this winter and enjoy the holiday season.

Experts who spoke to Healthline for this story reiterate that while there are risk factors people should be aware of, they should also be able to take joy in the holiday season.

The AHA reports that the three most common days for these fatal cardiac events to occur are December 25, 26, and January 1.

Those with pre-existing conditions are at a higher risk for heart attacks. Medical and sports cardiologist Dr. Eli Friedman (FACC) at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, a part of Baptist Health South Florida, said it’s important to be aware of risk factors during the holiday season especially if you have heart arrhythmia, heart failure or coronary artery disease, to understand when you can push your limits and when to take a step back to prioritize your health.

“We’d still need to be careful too,” Friedman said of people with serious heart disease. “I think it’s helpful to set some boundaries when it comes to those folks as well.”

Tim Bilbrey, who runs a company called Recovery Plus USA that provides at-home cardiac rehabilitation programs, says he looks at a person’s “health portfolio” to understand their risk of a cardiac event.

“Looking at family history, and then also coupling it with any sort of current chronic medical conditions, obesity, diabetes, prehypertension, hypertension, high cholesterol, you know, all of these factors all can roll together.”

Another risk factor is that during the holidays, people may be traveling or shifting their routines. This can mean they get out of their medical routine, which can lead to delays in taking medication or missed doses altogether.

It’s an issue that is concerning for Dr. Evelyn Huang, a resident emergency medicine physician at Northwestern. Huang suggests simple steps to ensure you have your medication with you when traveling.

“During the holidays, I know people usually travel or they’re a lot busier, so they may not be taking their medications as prescribed,” Huang told Healthline. “The number one [action] that’s a really, easy thing to do is just to get medicine boxes or making sure you’re packing your medications when you’re traveling because that can really help modify the risk factors that you have.”

Other risk factors during the holiday season include changes in diet during big celebratory dinners and a reduction in overall activity levels. Bilbrey says that those looking to maintain their activity levels need to be cognizant of not just how they are exercising, but when.

“[During] what we like to call the extreme times of the year, the extreme temperatures, extremely hot, extremely cold, you have to be very mindful of the days and the times [you exercise in],” Bilbrey said.

According to the experts, it can be helpful to exercise in spaces where temperatures will be consistent, like a shopping mall instead of going from a heated home to freezing temperatures.

While the joy of the holidays often involves group gatherings, Huang says that people need to be mindful of avoiding viruses like the seasonal flu, COVID-19 and RSV.

These diseases can take a damaging toll on the heart.

Huang said it’s key to get vaccinated for the flu and COVID-19 and take steps to minimize the chance of getting sick at a family gathering.

“We know that when the body is under stress, such as if they were to be ill with the flu or COVID, that puts them at risk for stress on other parts of the body, and that includes their hearts,” Huang said. “That means getting vaccinated if they haven’t already, if they’re feeling ill not to expose themselves to other members of their family, [and] masking when appropriate.”

Dr. Bradley Serwer, FACC, a former physician in the US Navy and current chief medical office for CardioSolution, says that his work – which is primarily done at a rural hospital in Pennsylvania – says when people have multiple risk factors such as alcohol consumption or poor sleep, they can compound to affect cardiac health.

“All of these different body systems work hand in hand, they’re not working in isolation,” Serwer said. “Something as simple as consuming too much alcohol can make people sleep very deeply. And if they have sleep apnea, sleep apnea increases their risk of having atrial fibrillation, and atrial fibrillation increases their risk of having heart failure. And so it’s sort of the spiral effect that we see.”

As always, it’s important to be aware of the basic signs of a heart attack.

The American Heart Association has a handy list of common symptoms but they can vary between men and women. For women the most common sign is chest discomfort but also jaw, neck or back pain, nausea and shortness of breath, among others.

In men the most common signs are chest discomfort, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, and breaking into a cold sweat, among others.

Huang says that people should know the wider variety of symptoms to look out for and seek medical attention if they are at all concerned about a cardiac event.

“People may just have any kind of chest pain located anywhere on their chest. Some people may even feel more like a heartburn kind of feeling,” Huang said. “Other people may have sensation in their chest or pressure in their chest when they’re exerting themselves or even shortness of breath, which can all be a sign that there’s something going on with their heart.”

Huang told Healthline that feelings of being lightheaded or sweating an unexpectedly high amount after exercise, are other reasons to consider getting medical attention for your heart.

Serwer says that some people might start a new exercise regimen at the beginning of the new year which can lead to cardiac issues.

“If you’re having chest pain, don’t blow it off. Get evaluated as soon as possible. Just because it’s the holidays doesn’t mean that the chest pain is a freebie. If you’re having chest pain, it’s just as significant, just as concerning as if it’s any other day of the year.”

In terms of prevention, Friedman is involved in a program, titled Heart of a Champion, where the goal is to create better education and outcomes for young athletes. He says there are some particular signs that parents, athletes, and coaches should be aware of when it comes to sudden cardiac arrest while competing.

“If somebody has what we call a non-contact collapse, that all of a sudden the athlete is on the ground and he or she has not had any reason to be there… that is a huge sign, that that could be cardiac arrest. If someone has seizure-like activity, that should be presumed to be cardiac arrest until proven otherwise, obviously, an unresponsive athlete,no pulses, agonal respirations.. which is kind of these very deep and dark, respirations and sound like the person is breathing, but in fact, they’re not…All of those need to render a thought of this cardiac arrest or not, and then activating what we call an emergency action plan immediately.”