Vail Daily health feature: Cold temps, altitude linked to heart attacks |

Vail Daily health feature: Cold temps, altitude linked to heart attacks

Rosanna Turner
Special to the Weekly
Being outside in cold weather can affect not only your immunity and extremities, but your heart as well.
Special to the Weekly |

VAIL — As winter bears on, you may worry about getting a cold, the flu or maybe frostbite, but it’s rare that a heart attack tops the list of health risks you think about in the winter. The truth is, being outside in cold weather can affect not only your immunity and extremities, but your heart as well.

“If you get cold, your blood pressure does go up, and potentially your heart rate, to keep you warm,” said Dr. Jerry Greenberg, a cardiologist at Vail Valley Medical Center. “It’s not necessarily a cold-precipitated heart attack we’re talking about, but the cold does cause vasoconstriction and elevates your blood pressure.”

Greenberg said when you don’t warm up before doing a physical activity in cold temperatures, or you go from being in a heated, cozy house to the frigid outside air, these abrupt changes have an effect on the heart.

“Any process that puts an increased demand on the heart’s function can precipitate a heart attack,” Greenberg said.

Shoveling snow is a perfect example. He explains, “Without any warm-up, people start lifting 30 pounds of snow. It’s cold out, so they have to increase their heart rate, and they have to increase how much the heart contracts and squeezes. All of these factors go into why people have a heart attack while being cold-exposed and doing exercise.”


Eagle County’s overall population spikes during the winter season, so it’s difficult to determine whether or not there’s an actual increase in heart attacks locally during the colder months. However, a September 2013 study released by the European Society of Cardiology analyzed data from over 100,000 subjects in seven countries, finding that cardiovascular risk factors, such as blood pressure, waist circumference and total cholesterol, were highest in the winter and lowest in the summer.

Here in the high country, altitude can also affect one’s risk for heart attack. A decrease in oxygen in the blood can affect the cardiovascular system and put more demand on the heart, adrenaline release and pulmonary artery pressures. Those who already have some form of heart disease should take extra precaution when coming to high altitude.

“Stay well-hydrated,” Greenberg advises. “Give yourself (some) acclimation to the altitude, a day or so. On the first day, don’t go out and hammer it. Take it a little easy to get used to the altitude. And avoid alcohol.”

It’s not unheard of for someone out shoveling snow to think he/she pulled a muscle, only to discover it’s something far more serious. The main sign of a heart attack is chest pains, which can also feel like heartburn and for women, symptoms can include jaw pain, sweatiness and feeling weak. Especially when experienced after some form of exertion, any type of chest pain syndrome should be evaluated by a physician, Greenberg said.

As the leading cause of death in America, assessing one’s risk for heart disease is a year-long practice. Greenberg said everyone should be concerned about their cardiovascular health on a regular basis. Particularly in the winter, however, it’s important to gradually increase and decrease your heart rate by warming up and cooling down when doing any type of physical activity. It’s impossible to know what exactly can, or will, cause someone to have a heart attack. Reducing one’s risk factors and focusing on prevention could make a significant difference.


“The vast majority of heart attacks are not precipitated by specific events,” Greenberg said. “A heart attack is a very complex problem. … It’s not always related to activity, it’s not always related to cold exposure, it’s not always related to a stressful moment, but those are all factors that have been linked to (a heart attack).”

In the event of a heart attack, the Cardiac Catheterization Lab (Cath Lab) at VVMC will provide immediate care to patients requiring life-saving care. Set to open in March, the Cath Lab will include services such as angiograms, angioplasty and catheter ablation and stenting, along with pacemakers and Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillators (ICDs), which are already currently available.

For patients requiring this type of intervention, access to a Cath Lab is critical to ensure quick restoration of blood flow by opening the arteries. The Cath Lab aims to significantly reduce the number of patient transfers to Denver.

“VVMC continues to seek ways to serve our residents and visitors right here in our community,” said VVMC President and CEO Doris Kirchner. “The life-saving technology of the Cath Lab helps us achieve our mission of providing superior health services with compassion and exceptional outcomes.”

We all know to wear gloves in the winter to keep our fingers from freezing, but since February is American Heart Month, we should all be reminded to stay warm in order to keep our heart healthy too.

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