While cardiac wards may not be busy during a major snowstorm, new research suggests that two days after a healthy dose of snowfall, hospitals see a spike in heart attacks, strokes and chest pain.
Two days after a heavy snowfall, hospital admissions for cardiac incidents climb by a steep 23 per cent, the new Harvard School of Public Health study warns.
The news is timely as Canada is still in the grip of winter. Across the country, temperatures range from -32 C to 2 C – and snow is still projected in the upcoming weeks.
“With global climate change, major snowstorms may become more frequent and severe. Understanding trends in hospitalizations related to snowfall will help us develop ways to protect public health during harsh winter conditions,” Jennifer Bob, the study’s lead author, said.
The research is based on data from over 433,000 adults hospitalized in the four largest hospitals in Boston from November to April over the course of five years from 2010 to 2015.
The team zeroed in on heart disease and cold weather-related conditions, such as frostbite and falls.
Turns out, heart disease admissions were highest on days of moderate snowfall – about 12 to 25 centimetres.
The most admissions to hospital for falls came, on average, six days following a moderate snowfall. These incidents increased by 18 per cent on day six compared to days without any snow.
Finally, across the board, cold weather-related admissions increased by 3.7 per cent on high snowfall days where there was more than 25 centimetres of snow.
So why the two-day delay? The scientists guess it’s because snowstorms keep people indoors and away from potential hazards. There could also be a delay – people may not want to head to hospital in the middle of a whiteout.
Snow shovelling could also be a factor. When the snow settles, that’s typically when people head outdoors to clear their driveways.
The medical community always pointed to a link between the cold season and an increase in heart attacks, but researchers say that people in warmer locations aren’t any less vulnerable.
They suggest that other factors are at play, too: shorter days, falling out of good habits and daily exercise all wreak havoc with our health and immune systems.
Heart doctors at Los Angeles’ Good Samaritan Hospital looked into why heart risk is as much a factor in hot climates like Florida as in chillier regions like Massachusetts.
Their research found that people are 26 to 36 per cent more likely to die from a heart attack, heart failure, or other heart diseases in the winter compared to the summer.
The dip in temperatures makes blood vessels constrict, driving up your blood pressure. Your heart is forced to work overtime as your blood’s gateways narrow, decreasing blood flow.
Another “interesting phenomena” about winter is that the body’s blood itself thickens, making it more likely to clot when exposed to the cold.
Winter is also notorious for the flu season as influenzas and other bugs make their rounds through the population.
Read the full Harvard study published this week in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
— With files from Allison Vuchnich, Global News