Winter weather can increase risk of heart attack, stroke

GREATER SPRINGFIELD — The American Heart Association's (AHA) Operation Winter Weather Warnings recently launched an educational campaign targeted to individuals with existing heart disease or stroke, and those who may be at high risk. This includes people with a strong family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smokers, those who are overweight and the sedentary.

For these individuals, the stresses of the season may pose extra concern and the association is urging individuals to exercise due caution to avoid sudden cardiac death.

Factors that may influence this trend could include an increase in respiratory infections during the winter, to increased workload on the heart from activities such as the shoveling of heavy snow.

The AHA recommends the following tips to help respond to and prevent sudden cardiac arrest:
  • Avoid sudden cold weather exertion.

    Snowstorms present particular challenges for everyone, primarily because getting rid of the snow usually means sudden exertion in cold weather.

    In and of itself, snow shoveling can be healthy, good exercise, but not if you are normally sedentary, are in poor physical condition, or have risk factors that make snow shoveling inadvisable for your health.

    Everyone who must be outdoors in cold weather should avoid sudden exertion, like lifting a heavy shovel full of snow. Even walking through heavy, wet snow or snowdrifts can strain a person's heart.

  • Recognize the symptoms of hypothermia.

    Hypothermia occurs when your body can't produce enough energy to keep the internal body temperature warm enough, causing it to fall below normal. It can kill you. Heart failure causes most deaths in hypothermia. Symptoms include lack of coordination, mental confusion, slowed reactions, shivering and sleepiness.

    Children, the elderly and those with heart disease are at special risk.

    As people age, their ability to maintain a normal internal body temperature often decreases.

    Because elderly people seem to be relatively insensitive to moderately cold conditions, they can suffer hypothermia without knowing they're in danger.

  • Stay warm.

    People with coronary heart disease often suffer chest pain or discomfort called angina pectoris when they're in cold weather.

    Besides cold temperatures, high winds, snow and rain also can steal body heat. Wind is especially dangerous, because it removes the layer of heated air from around your body. Similarly, dampness causes the body to lose heat faster than it would at the same temperature in drier conditions.

    To keep warm, wear layers of clothing. This traps air between layers, forming a protective insulation. Also, wear a hat or headscarf. Much of your body's heat can be lost through your head and ears are especially prone to frostbite. Keep your hands and feet warm, too, as they tend to lose heat rapidly.

  • Avoid alcohol before heading outdoors.

    Alcohol gives an initial feeling of warmth, but this is caused by expanding blood vessels in the skin.

    Heat is then drawn away from the body's vital organs. Alcohol consumption and physical activity in harsh winter weather conditions can increase the likelihood of hypothermia.

  • Learn cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and/or Hands-Only CPR.

    CPR: About 80 percent of all out-of-hospital cardiac arrests occur in private residential settings, so being trained to perform CPR can mean the difference between life and death for a loved one.
Effective bystander CPR, provided immediately after cardiac arrest, can double a victim's chance of survival. The AHA conducts courses convenient to everyone.

To access a course listing, log on to the AHA's Web site at

Hands-Only CPR: Hands-Only CPR is CPR without mouth-to-mouth breaths. It is recommended for use by people who see an adult suddenly collapse in the "out-of-hospital" setting, such as at home, at work, or in a park.

It offers an easy to remember and effective option to those bystanders who have been previously trained in CPR but are afraid to help because they are not confident that they can remember and perform the steps of conventional CPR. It consists of two steps:
  1. Call 911 (or send someone to do that).

  2. Begin providing high-quality chest compressions by pushing hard and fast in the center of the chest with minimal interruptions.
For additional information on Hands-Only CPR and to watch an instructional video, visit

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