Starting around American Thanksgiving, through the Christmas season, and peaking on New Year’s Day is an interesting phenomenon becoming known as the “Merry ChristmasCoronary” or “Happy New Year Heart Attack”.  The holiday season is wrapped and beautifully presented as a time of cheer and merriment so why the increase in cardiac deaths during this time?

Tis the Season to Eat, Drink, and Be Merry

Holiday cheer is often centered around food.  A rich fatty meal, which is also usually high in salt, can have an almost immediate stress effect on the heart, even as it is being digested.  “Research shows that a meal high in saturated fat can increase blood pressure and have a negative effect on the lining of the blood vessels within just a few hours” says Dr. Kosiborod, a visiting Cardiologist to The Heart Health Centre. Lack of exercise and weight gain during the seasonal rush puts additional stress on an already weakened heart. 

Most people enjoy a glass of bubbly but excess alcohol can also have negative effects on the cardiovascular system. Large amounts of alcohol can irritate the heart muscle to trigger an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation.  Atrial fibrillation causes the heart to beat ineffectively and increases the chance for a blood clot to form.

Efforts to create and experience the “perfect” holiday can raise emotional stress levels to new heights.  Gift buying, cooking, entertaining, partying, travelling, unfamiliar environments, lack of sleep and exercise contribute to increased stress which can have negative effects on heart health. “Chronic stress has been associated with progression of atherosclerosis – a condition in which fat and cholesterol collects inside the walls of the arteries. In addition, several prior studies show that acute emotional stress may increase the risk of a heart attack”, says Dr. Kosiborod.

Other common reasons for the spike in cardiac deaths during this time of year include:  respiratory illness (common during the winter months) which can stress the heart; medications areoften skipped or forgotten; and there may be a delay in seeking treatment.  People often ignore the first signs and symptoms of a heart attack because they don’t want to spoil holiday fun for others or themselves.

This holiday season, give the gift of health to yourself and your loved ones by following a few simple heart saving tips:

Eat Your Heart Out (the healthy way)

Include heart healthy food choices into every meal:  load up on fruits/veggies, fiber rich whole grains, lean meat/fish/skinless chicken, and fat free or low fat dairy products.  Make a party plan.  Don’t arrive hungry.  Have a small healthy snack before checking out the buffet line.  Use a smaller plate to control portion size and make a conscious effort to limit high fat items (fried foods, cream based soups, cheese-filled dishes, sausages, pastries, and pies). Choose flavored water over punch, alcohol, and soda.  Bring along a healthy dish to share and place your focus on socializing rather than food.  The American Heart Association recommends no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men.  One drink is 4oz of wine, 1oz, liquor, or 12oz of beer.

Keep Moving

Make room in your busy schedule to be active and keep the holiday pounds from piling on.  Aim for 30 minutes most days of the week.  Don’t have 30 minutes? Playing outside with your kids, dancing, walking briskly, swimming, and yard raking all count. Break up your activity into 10-15 minutes segments throughout your day.  Pack a work-out bag every day so you’re ready when a moment presents itself to get out there and be active. Exercise is also a great way to reduce and manage stress.

Be Informed

Discuss with your doctor if a flu shot is appropriate for you. Be careful with certain cold medications and decongestants as many of these should NOT be used if you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure or other cardiovascular conditions.  Don’t ignore the signs and symptoms of a heart attack.  Call 911 immediately.

Common heart attack symptoms

  • Chest discomfort or pain
  • An ache radiating to the neck, jaw, or arms
  • Associated nausea
  • Shortness of breath not related to exertion

Uncommon signs

  • Unexplained exhaustion, fatigue, or weakness
  • Indigestion, stomach distress (squeezing, full feeling, unable to belch)
  • Back discomfort between shoulder blades
  • Unexplained dizziness and/or sweating without activity


Contributor:  Jodie Kelley, RN, BSN
Education and Program Coordinator
The Heart Health Centre
Grand Cayman, Islands


- American Heart Association
- Kloner, RA. “The Merry Christmas Coronary” and “Happy New Year Heart Attack”.  Circulation 2004; 110;3744-3745
8 Steps to Surviving Holiday Weight Gain, Cleveland Clinic
- National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health
- Small Steps Adult and Teen, U. S. Department of Health and Human Service