The Cold Heart: winter tips for heart patients


It is obvious: the human body always tries to maintain a constant temperature. Both cold and…

The cold heart: winter tips for heart patients

The Cold Heart: winter tips for heart patients




It is obvious: the human body always tries to maintain a constant temperature. Both cold and warm ambient temperatures must therefore be balanced. So, the body cools or heats and both mean increased strain on the cardiovascular system. The higher the temperature difference between the inside of the body and the outside temperature, the more stress is imposed on the body. But how does this affect our heart? Can cold trigger heart problems?


Not surprisingly, recent studies on this subject have come from the far north, more precisely from Sweden and Finland.


A Swedish long-term study investigated in more detail the conspicuous accumulation of heart attacks during the winter months. For this purpose, weather data and heart attack cases were statistically evaluated for the years 1998 to 2013. The number of heart attacks caused by an occlusion of the coronary arteries (ST elevation myocardial infarction) increased the colder it got. This was true for every region in Sweden, regardless of, for example, gender or age. The increase affected both patients who were already undergoing cardiological treatment and taking the appropriate medication and those who had not yet been diagnosed. According to the authors of the study from Lund University, this suggests that cold is a trigger for heart attacks.


However, the fact that acute heart problems are triggered by particularly cold weather, perhaps even for the first time, does not mean that it is unnecessary to seek medical advice. A study in Finland showed that the risk of cold-induced heart problems can also be reduced by making a diagnosis and taking the right medication.


So even if the overall number of heart attacks increases the colder it is and the likelihood of having a heart attack increases for people undergoing cardiological therapy as well as for those not receiving therapy, diagnosis and medication still reduce the personal risk.


But what mechanisms lead to this increase in heart attacks in the cold season, and how can you protect yourself?


One reason is the direct physical reactions. In cold and frosty weather, the blood vessels in the skin contract. This reduces the heat conductivity and stabilises the body temperature, but also increases the resistance for the blood. As a result, the blood pressure rises. For people who already have high blood pressure, cold can make heart problems worse.


In order to continue to supply the entire body with fresh blood, the heart must now work even harder. When blood pressure rises in this way, the muscle mass of the heart can increase. This can lead to parts of the heart itself no longer being supplied with enough oxygen-rich blood, and therefore die. In people who have coronary heart disease, i.e. whose coronary arteries are already less permeable because of arteriosclerosis, the body's reactions to cold can lead to an undersupply of oxygen to the heart and a heart attack.


It is therefore advisable to avoid major physical exertion in cold and frost if a previous illness is known. In addition to sports activities, this includes seasonal snow shovelling or sauna. However, this does not mean that sport in winter is generally not advisable. In general, regular moderate exercise is good for heart health. However, it might be a good idea to change your weekly bike ride to a cross-trainer or to replace jogging in the park with a walk. If you opt for Nordic walking in the forest or a daily walk in the fresh air, you can further relieve your body by dressing according to the temperature. As with so many things, the right level of clothing is important. To find this, it is advisable to take the warning signals of your own body seriously. Even without a known pre-existing condition, heart problems in cold weather must be clarified. In general, a doctor should be consulted if you experience acute heart problems. There are about 400,000 heart attacks in Germany every year. If symptoms occur, it is important to react quickly in order to mitigate the mortality risk and to keep consequential damage as small as possible.  


Shortness of breath, sweating and angina pectoris, i.e. stinging and tightness in the chest, are classic symptoms that indicate a heart attack or other cardiac event and can occur for the first time, especially when temperatures are falling.


Women often experience different symptoms of heart attacks than men. For example, nausea, upper abdominal pain, and neck, throat and jaw pain in women can also be signs of a heart attack.


So, symptoms of heart attacks do not always follow the usual patterns and in some cases may not occur at all in both men and women.




But when the thermometer goes down, it is not only the cold that directly affects the heart. The Swedish researchers also suspect other reasons why more heart problems are observed in winter. Every year during the cold season, the number of cases of respiratory problems increases. This is another risk factor, and it is likely to lead to more frequent heart attacks.


In addition, our behaviour changes during the winter months. Many eat more, more fatty and sweeter: cookies, mulled wine and roast goose are in season. The colder it gets, the more tempting the idea of a sauna session becomes. Even the unaccustomed heat stresses the cardiovascular system. The subsequent shock caused by the sudden cooling down can then be even more of a strain. Sporting activities are sometimes completely stopped in winter. If you cycle to work in summer, you may prefer to take the car or public transport. It is worth remembering the benefits of moderate exercise for heart health. Unfortunately, the winter inclination to be comfortable can therefore also be assumed to be a risk factor for heart health. Moderation is therefore the watchword. So if it does snow again this year, you might prefer to leave snow shovelling to your children, a neighbour or friends, go for a walk in your cap and scarf instead and then turn your attention to another cold heart, namely that of Wilhelm Hauff's fairy tale.


Here we have once again summarized the most important winter tips for heart patients:




Winter tips for heart patients summarized:


  • Avoid physical exertion in cold and frost. In other words, when exercising, do not take a sauna or ask for help with shovelling snow.
  • Moderate regular exercise protects your cardiovascular system. But: do more strenuous training sessions in winter at room temperature, in the swimming pool or gym.
  • If you go outside in the cold, you should also dress according to the temperature.
  • Moderation: Ask yourself whether seasonal temptations such as biscuits, mulled wine and roasts are good for you and, if so, how much of them you should really enjoy.
  • If you experience heart problems, seek medical advice immediately, regardless of the season.
  • Early diagnosis and treatment will protect your heart even in winter.


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