Of all the areas of health that are impacted by winter weather, your heart faces the greatest risks, especially if you have cardiovascular health risks already, or you’re over the age of 65. Here’s what the science and research show, and what you should know to protect your heart health in the winter.
Heart Health Facts
Research consistently shows that cold winter weather can increase your heart health risks, and may lead to deadly heart attacks—even more so than in the summer. Unfortunately, these risks can increase, even if you’re not out shoveling snow from your driveway, because cold temperatures and seasonal factors can cause biochemical changes in your body.1
According to a large scale study from 2018, the risks of having a heart attack are highest on days when temperatures were below freezing. Risks of deadly strokes can increase as well on days when temperatures reach freezing levels.2
Other data shows more than a 50% increase in heart attacks during the winter, compared to the summer.3
How Cold Winter Weather Puts Your Heart at Risk
What exactly puts your heart at risk and what happens to your body when exposed to cold temperatures? Here are ways that the cold weather can raise your risk of heart attacks, and what you can do about it.
1. Cold Weathers Impacts On your Blood Pressure
Cold temperatures can constrict blood vessels and cause an increase in blood pressure. Holiday and winter weight gain can also raise cholesterol and blood pressure levels, leaving you more at risk for heart conditions. These increases can be more significant if you’re over age 65. High blood pressure is a primary risk factor for heart attacks and cardiovascular disease. One study showed that systolic blood pressure in elderly populations was 5 points higher on average in the winter compared to the summer.4
2. Cold weather raises your heart rate
Exposure to cold temperatures increases your heart rate and can put extra strain on your heart as your body attempts to keep warm. Together with increased blood pressure, this can increase the risks of heart attack. If you’re overexerting yourself in the cold (like shoveling snow), it can put your heart at a significant risk.5
3. Inflammation Increases During Winter
Exposure to more colds and flu viruses, and other immune threats, leads to increased levels of inflammatory immune compounds in the blood, and these levels are highest during the winter. Inflammatory immune compounds like C-Reactive Protein and others can lead to increased arterial plaque that can break off and cause blockages, leading to heart attacks and strokes.6
4. Cold Causes Plaque Ruptures
Cold weather is shown to increase the risks of arterial plaque ruptures, where a piece of hardened plaque on the artery walls breaks off into the circulation. This can end up blocking a major artery to the brain or heart, causing a stroke or heart attack. The increase in blood pressure and plaque deposits from inflammatory compounds are thought to be contributing factors to this risk.1
5. Higher Cholesterol Levels in the Winter
Blood cholesterol levels tend to be higher during winter months. Theories point to altered fat metabolism as a reaction to cold weather, as well the factors that contribute to winter weight gain, such as increase in heavier “comfort foods” and less exercise. One study showed that levels of unhealthy cholesterol were 3.5% higher in men and 1.7% higher in women during colder months.7
Other risks to our heart health in the winter include less sunshine exposure which lowers our levels of protective vitamin D. Deficiency of vitamin D is linked to various cardiovascular disease risks. In addition, other experts state that cold air causes the body to take in less oxygen, raising your risks of a cardiovascular event.
Tips to Support Winter Heart Health
One of the most important ways to keep your heart healthy during the winter is to keep warm. Wear loose layers to keep warm air circulating and heat your body better than tight fitting layers. Try to not over-exert yourself with intense physical activity when weather is coldest.
In addition, pay attention to your diet, emphasizing foods that help reduce inflammation such as green vegetables and low-sugar fruits, healthy fats, lean protein, and unprocessed foods.
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Winter and cold weather can be hard on your body, but with the right strategies, you can stay healthy and defend your cardiovascular function for optimal long-term wellness and vitality.
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- Kurihara O, Takano M, Yamamoto E, et al. Seasonal Variations in the Pathogenesis of Acute Coronary Syndromes. J Am Heart Assoc. 2020 Jul 7;9(13):e015579.
- Mohammad MA, Koul S, Rylance R, et al. Association of Weather With Day-to-Day Incidence of Myocardial Infarction: A SWEDEHEART Nationwide Observational Study. JAMA Cardiol. 2018;3(11):1081–1089.
- Cook, Shannon, Frank Lloyd, Jr., Alfie Ballew, and George E. Sandusky. (2013, April 5). Increased Ischemic Cardiac Deaths in Central Indiana in Summer Months Compared to Winter Months. Poster session presented at IUPUI Research Day 2013, Indianapolis, Indiana.
- Alperovitch , A. Archives of Internal Medicine, Jan. 12, 2009; vol 169: pp 75-80.
- Martin Juneau. Effects of Cold on Cardiovascular Health. MyHeart.net website. Updated Oct 18, 2021. Accessed January 31, 2022.
- Liu B, Taioli E (2015) Seasonal Variations of Complete Blood Count and Inflammatory Biomarkers in the US Population - Analysis of NHANES Data. PLOS ONE 10(11): e0142382.
- Dennis Thompson. Cholesterol Levels May Spike During Winter Months. Web MD website. Updated March 27, 2014. Accessed January 31, 2022.