Holistic heart doc Joel K. Kahn, MD, shares when your heart is most at risk for problems and what you can do to prevent the worst.
1. Know the danger zones
In 25 years of treating heart patients, I’ve noticed that heart attacks don’t always strike randomly. There are certain predictable “danger zones,” especially for patients with heart disease or a risk for it, like smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure. Being aware of these high-risk windows might lead you to tweak your lifestyle and lessen your chance of problems.
2. A bout of flu
As if extreme exhaustion, achiness, and high fever weren’t bad enough, the flu may quadruple your odds of having a heart attack for up to three days following the illness. The virus may trigger an inflammatory response that can damage arteries. Being dehydrated thickens blood, making it prone to clot. A fever can increase your heart rate, forcing the heart to work harder. A few days after contracting the flu, seek medical help.
3. A big sporting event
Believe it or not, even cheering for your team can break your heart—if you get so wrapped up in the game that your emotions spiral out of control. Soccer’s World Cup is serious business in Brazil. When researchers studied four Cups’ worth of data, they found that heart attacks increased during the tournament’s finals and rates were highest when Brazil was playing compared with other teams. If you’re a screaming sports fan, you could ask your doctor about taking a daily baby aspirin. Better yet, try to take things down a notch.
4. A manic Monday
Sunday-night blues make your heart sad too. A day-by-day breakdown of the incidence of heart attacks reveals that attacks spike on the days when we return to work after a break. Stress over the coming workweek raises levels of adrenaline and cortisol, which may increase blood pressure and clotting. Starting the week on a calmer note with even five to ten minutes of morning yoga or meditation has helped my patients. Recite these magic phrases that calm anxiety when your to-do list gets too long. Walking at lunch to relieve midday stress is another good idea.
5. Shoveling snow
The cardiac stress of cold weather and heavy labor can be extreme—and one of the surprising risks for heart attacks. In case studies, researchers have described heart attacks in patients who suffered a clot in a previously placed heart stent during or soon after shoveling snow. (We’ve seen similar heart attack risks in hunters dragging game out of cold fields.) I tell my patients with heart disease to dress warmly, take frequent breaks, stay hydrated, and, in some cases, just play it safe and leave shoveling to someone else.
6. The death of a loved one
Researchers who analyzed thousands of U.S. heart attack victims found that those grieving a death were more likely to have an increased heart attack risk in the week following their loved one’s passing. Swedish research found that the heart attack risk remains elevated for several years after the death of an adult sibling. If you are suffering from a loss and feel alone or depressed, seek out counseling and support from your doctor, friends, and family.
A devastating natural disaster
In the three weeks following the 8.9-magnitude earthquake and accompanying tsunami that killed thousands of people in Japan in 2011, the rate of heart attacks among survivors increased threefold, compared with the rate during the same calendar weeks in past years. It’s important for first responders and health-care providers to be aware of this.