Winter Games – The Gold Standard For Death Risks

Ignoring fatalities that occur because of slips, ice/snow caused accidents, people not being able to afford to heat their homes…is there any indication that we need to worry more about dying during the winter months than the other months? Are our Olympic winter athletes risking more than a medal?

The answer seems to be yes!

Reaching for the Gold in colder temperatures increases potential health threats because there is a relatively significant difference in risk of serious illness or death depending upon the temperature!

Deaths by heart attack and stroke increase significantly in the cold months of the year. Studies of large groups of people show increases in both fatal and non-fatal heart attacks during the winter months. Cold air can constrict arteries, raise heart rate and blood pressure and cause blood to clot more easily, all of which can increase the risk of a cardiovascular event. These factors are particularly true for people who have only sporadic exposure to cold weather.

We have all been told by our mothers to “button-up, you will catch a chill”. Is that just an old wives tales or is that actually some scientific basis buried behind it? Well in fact Japanese researchers indicate that though the “cold” can not directly cause you to get sick with things like the flu, it can and does suppress you immune system and increase your chances of viral infection. Interestingly enough, overheating does not increase your chances of contracting a viral infection.

Results reported by the Second National Registry of Myocardial Infarction (heart attacks), winter was the top season for heart attacks, followed by fall, then spring, then summer.

There were 53% more heart attacks in winter than summer. January (the most dangerous month, showed twice as many heart attacks per day than July, the lowest month). Also heart attacks that occurred in the winter were more serious, causing more damage, with a fatality rate of 9%

An article by Clare Murphs of the BBC, “How Cold Turns Up the Heat on Health,” reminds us that many more deaths occur from chronic conditions that are exacerbated by cold weather. She also notes that, “For every degree the temperature drops below 18C, deaths in the UK go up by nearly 1.5%.”

The US National Center for Health Statistics for 2001-2008, shows that on average 7,200 Americans died each day during the months of December, January, February and March, compared to the average 6,400 who died daily during the rest of the year.

So exactly what is it that is causing the extra risk during the winter months?

Though no one knows for sure, here are some of the mostly likely suspects…

1. In the cold, blood vessels constrict to help conserve body heat. Narrowed vessels also mean higher blood pressure, which puts additional strain on the heart.

2. Snow shoveling is heavy exercise and people tend to think they are in better shape than they really are. Especially at risk are those who don’t exercise regularly and then try to clear out the driveway.

3. Though not as potentially serious, cholesterol levels due peak during the colder months.

4. Over eating and high fat content of holiday meals can interfere with heart and artery function and even the clotting system.

5. Alcohol can affect blood pressure and heart rhythms.

6. Delays in seeking medical help during the holidays. People can be traveling or just don’t want to be party poopers and put off seeking help when they don’t feel well.

As they say, (Who is “they” anyway?) – forearmed is forewarned! Hopefully this information will allow you to intelligently enjoy all of the joys and wonders of the holidays and beautiful winter locations.

Yours in life and health

Curt Hendrix M.S. C.C.N. C.N.S.

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