The risk of heart attacks and sudden cardiac death increase markedly (about 4%) during the winter holiday season. The more cynical among us have sometimes attributed this purely to the additional stress of close family gatherings at this time of year, but the truth is that alcohol consumption may be at its root.
“Holiday Heart” was first described by researchers (in 1978) exploring the cause of sudden heart rhythm disturbances in otherwise healthy adults. They noticed that binge alcohol consumption led to a higher risk of arrhythmias in a dose-dependent manner. The heavier the drinking, the higher the risk of irregular, and dangerous rhythms.
Alcohol is known to be toxic to heart muscle, as it affects the pH and electrolytes involved in conduction of electrical impulses through the organ. It is suspected that marijuana may also affect heart rhythms the way alcohol does (there have been a few cases reported). The most common alcohol-induced rhythm disorder is atrial fibrillation. In fact, some studies suggest that about 60% of new cases of atrial fibrillation (in patients under the age of 65) may be linked to excessive alcohol consumption.
Why should you care about atrial fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation occurs when the upper heart chambers cease contracting effectively, and simply shake rather than pump. This results in a slowdown of blood flow in the upper part of the heart. Slow-moving blood tends to clot, and these clots can travel through blood vessels until they lodge in a narrow section of artery, usually in the brain, resulting in a stroke. To reduce this risk, physicians often prescribe “blood thinners” such as Coumadin (Warfarin) to those with known history of atrial fibrillation.
However, if you’re a young(er) person without any history of heart disease and are just having a little extra alcohol at various parties over the holiday season, you may not realize that you’re at risk for holiday heart. If you feel palpitations, chest pain or pressure, or sudden onset of stroke-like symptoms, please proceed immediately to the nearest emergency department. For every minute that oxygen is not reaching heart or brain tissue (due to blocked blood flow), long term damage can result.
Can you recognize stroke symptoms?
The American Stroke Association (ASA) has an easy mnemonic for assessing someone for stroke. It’s called F-A-S-T:
F = face drooping
A = arm weakness
S = speech difficulties
T = time to call 9-1-1
Beyond F.A.S.T. – Other Symptoms You Should Know (from ASA)
- Sudden NUMBNESS or weakness of face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body
- Sudden CONFUSION, trouble speaking or understanding speech
- Sudden TROUBLE SEEING in one or both eyes
- Sudden TROUBLE WALKING, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
- Sudden SEVERE HEADACHE with no known cause
- So enjoy your holiday festivities, but be prepared to get yourself (or friends/family) medical attention right away if you think they’re having holiday heart syndrome, or a resultant stroke. Of course, going easy on the alcohol would also be a good preventive measure to consider!
Happy & Healthy Holidays!
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