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Winter Sports May Increase Risk of Sudden Heart Attack

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Heart Attack related image Photo: Getty Images

My left-brained engineer husband has commented more than once that he’d like to slice open my brain (purely for scientific reasons, of course) because it must be lit up like a Christmas tree all the time. Why, you might ask? Well, one thing you need to know about me is that I think by association. One thought leads to another and then to a different path, and so on, with all thoughts being interconnected in some inexplicable logic which is perfectly clear to me (although not so necessarily clear to my left-brained engineer husband).

For example, today topped more than 100 degrees with a heat index that brought new meaning to the word hot. This end of the summer heat wave led me to ponder upon the fact that fall is around the corner. Fall brings cooler weather. Cooler weather brings the certainty of winter and winter break brings the promise of playing in a fairy-land of snow and ice, and for many, winter vacations to enjoy the unique winter sports, like skiing. This chain of thoughts, quite naturally to my way of thinking, led to the topic of this article - sudden heart attacks! (Are you still with me? Don’t worry, my husband got lost in the logic too!)

Despite the heat outside, it won’t be long before cooler weather is upon us and many will soon be planning winter break vacations to their favorite ski resort. (In fact, one of my neighbors is already making arrangements for the family’s winter ski trip.) But, before you strap on those ski boots and head up the slopes, step back for a minute and take a heart health assessment and make certain your heart is ready for the rigors of the “vacation.”

I’ve never been but the Alps are supposed to be one of the great winter sports destinations in the world. Literally millions of tourists flock there each year to ski and enjoy other winter sports. With so many visitors constantly streaming in and out, accidents, and even fatalities are not only bound to happen, but expected. What’s not expected, however, is that of the fatalities, 40 percent were the result of sudden cardiac death (heart attacks).

When you see a trend like this, it’s bound to garner attention and the cardiologists at the Medical University of Innsbruck took notice. Their inquiring minds wanted to know and understand why they were seeing such a high concentration of sudden heart attacks and began a research study to look for trends in the heart attack patients so that preventative strategies could be developed. From 2006-2010, researchers examined medical records of more than 1,500 persons who suffered heart attacks, focusing on those who had heart attacks during their winter vacations. Their findings just may help you avoid becoming a statistic during your next winter vacation.

Some things to consider include:
1. Altitude. There’s no way around it but altitude was one of the major contributing factors to these sudden cardiac events. Researchers found that the altitude where the patients normally lived was about 557 feet (170 meters). The average altitude where the heart attacks occurred - 4,229 feet (1,350 meters)! The air is thinner in higher altitudes. With less oxygen available, your body simply has to work a bit harder to get even normal activities done. And let’s face it, winter sports are not “normal” every day activities (but more about that below). It’s really no surprise that altitude is a factor in this heart attack mix.

2. Physical preparation: As mentioned above, winter sports can be rather intense and generally require you to be somewhat physically fit. Researchers found that many winter sports vacationers were simply not prepared physically to participate in their sport of choice, especially at that altitude. More than 50 percent of patients indicated that prior to the start of the vacation, their activity level was not, how shall we say this delicately, as strenuous on a day-to-day basis as what they were engaging in during the vacation time. So, the physical activity level is up (probably by a couple of exponential factors) making the heart work harder. Add the super-charged pumping caused by the high-altitude to the mix and it’s not hard to see where the recipe is going.

3. Timing: Researchers reported that most vacationers stayed an average of eight days. Two days (from the start of the physical activity) was the average time for the heart attack. In fact, 56 percent of all heart attacks occurred during this two-day window.

4. Preexisting condition: Surprisingly, most of the patients examined did not have a known heart condition - emphasis on “known.” Only 19 percent of the patients were aware that they had a preexisting heart condition. However, 70 percent of all the patients had at least two risk factors for heart disease (for example, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, etc.)

So, what can you do to lower your risk of heart attack and still enjoy winter sports? Recommendations include:

• Be wise - and careful. Know your risk factors for heart disease. Do you have two or more risk factors for heart disease? If so, you may want to check in with your doctor before going to ensure that you’re in good shape for the activity planned.
• Give yourself some time to adjust to the altitude (and the cold weather) before jumping into the activity. Start slow and build your activity level up. Remember, most heart incidences occurred within the first two days after the physical exercise began.
• Prepare yourself physically in advance. Don’t wait until your vacation to jump into intense physical exercise (at a high altitude) if you’re a couch potato for the other 11 1/2 months of the year. Get in shape before you head out to the slopes. Researchers also indicated that it’s a good idea to gradually increase the level of exercise the closer you come to your vacation date to lower your risk of heart attack.

Taking these simple precautions may just save a life. After all, the goal of any vacation is to enjoy it and begin planning the next vacation and not a funeral.

Mary Kyle is a freelance writer, editor, and project manager. She has a Master of Arts in Legal Studies, a Bachelor of Music, and multiple professional certifications in project management. In addition to health advocacy, she is passionate about literacy and volunteers in local schools teaching writing seminars and reading.

European Society of Cardiology (ESC) (2010, September 1). Study shows increased risk of heart attack from physical exertion at altitude and low temperatures during winter sports vacations. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 1, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com¬ /releases/2010/08/100831104645.htm

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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