It’s been well documented that deaths from heart-related illnesses spike during the holiday season, but the reason why has not been as clear. There’s the added element of cold and flu season to consider, and with multiple factors at play, research has not clearly proven a specific cause.
Despite the lack of definitive causation, correlation has been observed for decades. One study published in the American Heart Journal in 1978 dubbed this phenomenon “holiday heart syndrome,” noting the increase in cardiac hospitalizations following Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The study described holiday heart syndrome as the prevalence of cardiac rhythm disorders like atrial fibrillation and attributed it to binge drinking during the holidays.
“Episodes usually followed heavy weekend or holiday sprees, resulting in hospitalization between Sunday and Tuesday or in proximity to the year-end holidays, a relationship not observed in other alcohol-associated illnesses,” the study abstract says.
Research has confirmed this correlation since that original study, as recently as 2018. A study published in the British Medical Journal that year found that heart attack risk spiked on holidays like Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, in addition to large sporting events and other national holidays. During the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, that risk went up 15 percent.
Because there are so many possible reasons for this correlation, in 2016 one group of researchers from the University of Melbourne set out to eliminate at least one element: cold and flu season. Based on a previous study in the U.S., they on populations in New Zealand, where the Christmas season falls in the summer.
The team found that deaths from heart disease still increased during the holiday season even without the element of weather to contend with.
Aside from lights and gifts, holiday cheer typically comes in the form of rich foods and alcohol. Add in a side of stress from hosting family, traveling, or finances, and you’ve got a perfect storm for people who have heart disease. It’s no surprise, then, that the prevalence of heart attacks increases during the holiday season.
A Swedish study quoted in an article from Baptist Health South Florida observed that “in comparison to the two weeks before and after Christmas, heart-attack risks were 37 percent higher on Christmas Eve, 20 percent higher on New Year’s Day, and 15 percent higher on Christmas Day.”
Though eating rich foods can certainly affect your heart health, heavy alcohol consumption is one of the greatest risk factors for “holiday heart syndrome.”
It’s widely understood that binge drinking is detrimental to heart health; even one binge drinking session can cause an arrhythmia. However, the exact explanation for alcohol’s effect on the heart remains unknown. Heavy alcohol consumption certainly affects the body in many ways, but the exact mechanism affecting heart health is not well understood.
In addition to arrhythmias, alcohol consumption has been linked to a number of heart-related issues, including cardiomyopathy, a disorder that reduces the heart’s ability to effectively pump blood.
“You can actually drink your heart muscle into a weakened state when you consume heavily (four to five drinks a day over several years),” writes a cardiologist for Heart and Stroke.
Binge drinking also leads to higher blood pressure and high calorie consumption, which can lead to weight gain that negatively affects your heart.
So how do we prevent that perfect storm from causing lasting damage?
Every 40 seconds, someone in the U.S. has a heart attack. Every 37 seconds, a person dies from cardiovascular disease. With statistics like these, it’s not entirely surprising that heart disease is the leading cause of death in American adults across nearly every race and ethnicity. Almost half of all adult Americans have some form of cardiovascular disease (including high blood pressure), so it is more important than ever to be aware of the signs and symptoms and take what measures we can to lower our risk of cardiac events.
Most heart disease is preventable through a healthy lifestyle, but if you exhibit any of these risk factors, consider getting screened for heart disease like carotid artery disease (CAD) or peripheral artery disease (PAD):
Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a type of arrhythmia in which the upper chambers of the heart do not beat at a regular pace, causing blood to pool in the heart and increasing the risk of stroke. AFib itself is not harmful, but people with AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke, which is life-threatening. It’s a good idea to get screened if you exhibit these risk factors:
Life Line Screening provides quick, painless screenings for atrial fibrillation, carotid artery disease, peripheral artery disease, and more. Schedule a screening today to arm yourself with knowledge about your own health so you can be better equipped to live the life you want to live. If you have any questions about screenings or heart health, please give us a call at 800.909.1041. We would love to help.
“Why Heart Attacks Spike at Christmas” Alice Park, TIME, 2016.
“Arrhythmias and the ‘Holiday Heart’: Alcohol associated cardiac rhythm disorders.” Phillip O. Edinger, et al., American Heart Journal, May 1978.
“Christmas, national holidays, sport events, and time factors as triggers of acute myocardial infarction: SWEDEHEART observational study 1998-2013.” British Medical Journal, 2018.
“Ask a Cardiologist: Alcohol and Heart Health.” Heart & Stroke.
“Holiday Heart Attacks: What You Need to Know.” Baptist Health South Florida, December 2019.
“Heart Disease Facts.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020.
Holiday heart syndrome, holiday heart attack, binge drinking, holiday drinking