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Winter is in full swing, and most of the US has been battered by a fierce winter storm. As of right now, a record-breaking 73% of America is snow-covered. Even though it’s beautiful, it can be deadly. Research is showing that frigid conditions can be dangerous to our hearts. 

In a nationwide, 16 year, observational study led by Prof David Erlinge from Lund University, researchers found when analyzing data from 280,000 heart attacks and investigating weather points, like temperature, air pressure, wind velocity, and sun duration, a higher risk of heart attack when the thermometer dips below freezing. 

 It has to do with arteries that constrict to keep you warm. 

Dr. Shaun Kurien, Cardiologist at OSF HealthCare Cardiovascular Institute, explains, “When those arteries constrict your blood pressure goes up, it puts a lot more strain on your heart. Your body needs to maintain its temperature, so the heart has to kind of work harder to keep that going. So, for most people, that may be okay, but for some of us who are more susceptible to artery disease, that can increase the strain on a heart that may not be doing as well already.”

The average age of those in the study was 70, but Dr. Kurien warned that a cold-related heart attack could happen to anyone of any age. As we get older, though, the chances could rise with the development of artery disease. 

The key to prevention is in the way we dress. Namely, in layers. 

Dr. Kurien suggests dressing appropriately for colder weather by wearing layers. 

“Layers create kind of insulation pockets of air between the layers that helps keep us warm. The warmer you are already, then the less your heart has to work to match that strain. Covering your head – also hats and stuff can help – you lose a lot of heat through your head. And so that kind of helps keep you warmer.”

Cold weather activities and exertion need to be kept to a minimum because they make your heart work harder. Dr. Kurien also advises that if you have artery disease to check with your doctor or cardiologist and ask one crucial question —

“What activities are safe for me to do outside…”

He goes on to clarify, “…Cause you may be a special population of people that – you know, some of my patients I think it’s fine for. Other people, I’d say – you know it’s better to get someone else to do it if you can.”

In short, it’s better to err on the side of caution when it comes to over-exerting yourself in cold weather. If you don’t have to, then DON’T. 

Of course, if you think you are presenting any of the signs of a heart attack, then don’t wait — call 911 immediately. 

We can all enjoy the cold weather and the blanket of soft, glistening snow it brings, but we don’t have to marathon shovel our way out of it. Maybe just build a snowman or make snow angels instead. And then go inside and warm up and wait for Spring.