Heart Deaths Spike in Winter -- Despite Temperature

By Charlene Laino
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 6, 2012 (Los Angeles) -- Winter can be deadly, at least when it comes to matters of the heart.

Whether you live in a place that is hot year-round, like Arizona, or in a state with cold winters, like Pennsylvania, you're more likely to die of heart-related problems in the winter, according to a new study presented today at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2012.

"We confirmed findings of previous studies that found that heart deaths peak in winter. But there was no link to the cold," says researcher Bryan Schwartz, MD.

That surprised the researchers, he says, as previous research has linked lower temperatures to an increase in heart attacks and heart-related deaths.

Instead, people were 26% to 36% more like to die from a heart attack, heart failure, or other heart diseases in the winter than in the summer regardless of whether they lived in a cold, moderate, or hot climate.

Schwartz and colleagues at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles analyzed more than 1.5 million death certificates from 2005 to 2008 from three states with warmer climates (Texas, Arizona, and Georgia); two locales with moderate climates (Los Angeles County and the western half of Washington State); and two states with colder winters (Massachusetts and Pennsylvania).

So what is to blame for the rise in deaths in the winter months?

For starters, people are "not as healthy in winter as in the summer," says Schwartz, who is now a cardiology fellow at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "Their diet is not as good, they don't exercise as much, and they often gain weight."

Flu, respiratory infections, and depression may also play a role, Schwartz says. These factors may act in concert: For example, a person who is on cholesterol-lowering and high blood pressure medication might feel down, making them less likely to take their medication and more likely to reach for calorie- and fat-packed snacks, he says.

American Heart Association spokesman Vincent Bufalino, MD, agrees. He is the senior medical director of cardiology at Advocate Health Care in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.

"I'm in the Chicago area, and come winter, we have to prod our patients to go to the gym, eat right, and keep it up," he says.

"We also have to watch out for depression," Bufalino says. One study found that people who suffer from depression and who also have heart disease are almost five times as likely to die as people who are mentally and physically healthy.

Heart disease and depression so commonly go hand-in-hand that the American Heart Association recommends heart patients be routinely screened for depression. Depression may actually induce physiological changes in the body that can be damaging to the heart, Bufalino says.

The bottom line: Take care of your health, no matter what the month and no matter what the temperature, the experts say.

These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary, as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

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SOURCES: American Heart Association Scientific Sessions 2012, Los Angeles, Nov. 3-7, 2012. Bryan Schwartz, MD, cardiology fellow, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Vincent Bufalino, MD, senior medical director of cardiology, Advocate Health Care, Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.

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