In Studio: Health expert explains why winter is prime heart attack season

SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — February is American Heart Month and marks the time to raise awareness about heart disease and how you can prevent it. Over 600,000 Americans die of heart disease every year — that’s one in every four deaths.

Our health expert, Karen Owoc, explained to KRON4’s Marty Gonzalez why winter is prime heart attack season and why heart attacks are the number one killer of women.

  1. Cold air temperatures. Cold hurts the heart. There are 53 percent more heart attacks in winter. A 16-year Swedish study of more than 280,000 patients suggests that the number of heart attacks peak in winter and that air temperature is an external trigger.
  • When it’s cold outside, the blood vessels in your extremities (arms, hands, feet, and legs) constrict to decrease heat loss from your skin. This response increases blood pressure and clot formation.
  • The elderly are especially at risk because they have less body fat and a diminished ability to sense temperature. Wind, rain, and snow also steal body heat.
  • Cover your mouth and nose. Wearing a scarf allows the air to naturally get warmed before it enters your body, and thus, won’t be such a shock to your heart and lungs. (This is especially critical for the elderly, people with heart disease risk factors or have a cardiac history.)
  1. Mixing alcohol with cold weather. Drinking is especially dangerous when you’re out in the cold (e.g., at football games, skiing, walking at night, etc.)
  • When cold, your blood vessels constrict, but when you drink alcohol, your vessels dilate (widen) causing all your body heat to go to your skin and out

to the environment. Your skin may feel warm and make you THINK your body is warming up, but actually, your core temperature is dropping which leads to hypothermia (when the body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit).

  • Drink water — not alcohol. Water is an insulator and retains body heat.


  1. Risk of the flu. Flu can cause inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle tissues; and multiple organ failure.
  • Heart attacks are six times more likely to occur seven days after a flu diagnosis. Risk increases slightly for those over 65.

The Takeaway… Keep warm. Avoid big changes in temperature — especially when drinking. Wear suitable clothing (layers) when going from the warm indoors to the colder outdoors, even beyond winter time.



Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death in U.S. women. Female heart attacks don’t often present like those in men nor are they as predictable. One woman dies from a heart attack every minute.

  • For example, a Circulation study showed that 43% of women do NOT experience acute chest pain at all during a heart attack which is a hallmark sign in men.
  • Women 55 and younger were seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed and discharged from the Emergency Department in mid-heart attack compared to men — especially if their complaint is indigestion or extreme fatigue. (Per research reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.)
  • Men have traditional risk factors of having a heart attack, e.g., high blood pressure, smoking and diabetes, but women seem to have a sex-specific family history tied to their risk according to a University of Oxford vascular study. That is, a woman who has a mother who had a stroke has a higher risk of having a heart attack as well as a stroke.


Major symptoms in women more than one month prior to a heart attack:

  • Unusual fatigue (70.7%) that may even feel like the onset of the flu
  • Difficulty sleeping (47.8%)
  • Shortness of breath (42.1%)
  • Chest discomfort (29.7%) and many experienced NO chest pain


Major symptoms in women during a heart attack:

  • Shortness of breath (57.9%)
  • Weakness (54.8%)
  • Fatigue(42.9%)
  • Back pain


The Takeaway… Don’t dismiss symptoms as something minor or try to ‘tough it out’. To prevent irreversible damage or death, you want to be in the Emergency Room within THIRTY MINUTES from the time you start feeling symptoms. Be assertive and persistent. Remember, many doctors still don’t recognize female heart attack symptoms. In the ED, tell the triage nurse you need to be seen by a cardiologist. Know the symptoms, know your risk factors, and pass this information on to women you know.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s