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Cold weather and heart disease

Not only can the cold be nasty - if you are living with heart disease it can be a health risk

Cold weather and heart disease - If you live in a colder climate, you need to take some precautions during extreme cold.

There are a number of reasons why.

First, your heart demands more oxygen when it's very cold because it is working harder to maintain your body heat. Besides cold temperatures, high winds, snow, and rain can lower body heat. Wind is especially dangerous, because it removes the layer of heated air from around your body, increasing your risk of hypothermia.

Cold weather makes the blood vessels constrict, and when vessels constrict, pressure goes up. So if a person already has high blood pressure, this extra constriction could cause problems.

Cold temperature also raises the stress level on the wall of the heart and makes your blood thicker and stickier, which may cause blood clots to form and block blood flow to the arteries in the heart.

During cold weather the number of respiratory infections increases, which can contribute to respiratory difficulties and put added pressure on your heart - leading to increased heart attack risk.

Finally, as your body ages, its ability to heat and cool itself becomes less efficient, meaning that you will be more susceptible to temperature changes as you grow older.

One more factor to consider - high blood pressure

Cold temperatures can increase your blood pressure. Researchers in France found that for those with high blood pressure (a pressure higher than 140/90) the risk of heart attack doubled when the temperatures dropped to less than 25 F or -4 C.

Yves Cotton, MD, and Marianne Zeller, MD, of the University of Dijon, analyzed data from more than 700 people who were admitted to the hospital with heart attacks during a two-year period. About half of the heart attack patients were being treated for high blood pressure at the time of the heart attack or had a history of hypertension.

When researchers cross-referenced the timing of the heart attacks with weather temperatures during the same two-year period, they discovered that not only were heart attacks more common during cold weather, but that sudden temperature changes from the day before to the day of the heart attack, such as drops of 5 or more degrees in a single day, also spiked increases in heart attacks in people with high blood pressure.

These sudden weather changes were associated with a more than 60% increase in risk in people with high blood pressure, according to the researchers.

What about exercise?

Exercise in cold weather can place added stress on your heart, multiplying the risks associated with cold weather and heart disease.

BUT this doesn't mean you should give up exercising!

Keep up with your walking program. With proper preparation, a walk in winter weather doesn't have put your heart at risk. If temperatures are extreme or snow or ice makes navigating difficult, consider walking on anindoor treadmill or visiting the gym where you can exercise in controlled temperatures.

If you need to shovel your walk or driveway, be cautious. Shovel for no more than 15 minutes, then take a break. Listen to your body. If you can't handle shoveling snow (or if your doctor has recommended against it), then get help from family, friends, or neighbors - or hire someone. (I pay a nice man to shovel my driveway in the winter and mow my lawn in the summer. He's worth every penny!)

When you go inside to warm up DON'T have a cup of coffee orsmoke a cigarette - because caffeine and nicotine just put that much more burden on the heart.

The colder it is, the more careful you need to be about exercising outside, particularly if you have a history of heart disease.

Cold weather and heart disease - What can you do to safeguard yourself?

  • When it's extremely cold, stay inside.
  • Don't engage in an outdoor activity that you are not accustomed to when the temperatures are extreme.
  • If you must go outside, wear multiple layers of clothing. This traps air between layers and forms a protective insulation.
  • Be sure to wear a hat or head scarf. Much of your body's heat can be lost through your head.
  • Keep your hands and feet warm too, as they tend to lose heat rapidly.
  • Keep an emergency kit (blanket, candles, matches, extra mitts, scarves, and hats, energy bar, and hand warmers) in your car in case you get stranded - and carry a cell phone to call for help.

Cold weather and heart disease - by taking some simple precautions, you can reduce your risk. If you have concerns about what you can or can't do, talk to your doctor.

Sources for cold weather and heart: American Heart Association, WebMD

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