Research studies show link between snow shoveling, heart attacks

The American Heart Association is warning Chicago and suburban residents of the increased danger of having a heart attack while shoveling snow.

Studies show that heart attack risk increases for those who are middle-aged or older, people who lead a sedentary lifestyle and people who have been diagnosed with a heart condition.  

WINTER STORM WARNING: Heavy snow rolls into Chicago; 6 to 7 inches reported overnight

The American Heart Association is encouraging these individuals to take extra precautions during the latest winter storm to hit Chicago.  

One of the reasons heart attacks can occur during snow shoveling is the combination of colder temperatures and physical exertion. 

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"Researchers have found that the heart rate and blood pressure responses to shoveling heavy, wet snow often approached and exceeded the same responses during maximum exercise testing," the American Heart Association said.

Many subjects can exceed their upper heart rate limit for aerobic exercise training within two minutes.

One study estimated that as many as 1,200 people nationwide die annually of coronary artery disease during and after major snowstorms. 

The American Heart Association released some tips when it comes to safer snow shoveling as well as some heart attack warning signs.

Tips for safer snow shoveling:

  • Consult a doctor.  If you have a medical condition, don’t exercise on a regular basis or are middle aged or older, schedule a meeting with your doctor.
  • Give yourself a break.  Take frequent rest breaks during shoveling so you don’t overstress your heart. Pay attention to how your body feels during those breaks. 
  • Don’t eat a heavy meal prior to shoveling.  Eating a large meal can put an extra load on your heart.   
  • Don’t drink alcoholic beverages before shoveling.  Alcohol may increase a person’s sensation of warmth and may cause them to underestimate the extra strain their body is under in the cold. 
  • Be aware of the dangers of hypothermia.  Heart failure causes most deaths in hypothermia.  To prevent hypothermia, dress in layers of warm clothing, which traps air between layers forming a protective insulation. Wear a hat because much of your body’s heat can be lost through your head. 
  • Use a small shovel.  The act of lifting heavy snow can raise blood pressure acutely during the lift.  It is safer to lift smaller amounts more times, than to lift a few huge shovelfuls of snow. 
  • Listen to your body.  If you feel the warning signs for heart attack, stop what you’re doing immediately and call 9-1-1. 

Heart attack warning signs:

  • Chest discomfort.  Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back.  It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.  
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body.  Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.  
  • Shortness of breath.  This feeling often comes along with chest discomfort, but shortness of breath can occur before the chest discomfort. Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or light-headedness.