Be sure to dress warm, especially your feet, hands and head, so your heart doesn’t have to work so hard.

Does the season really affect your risk of heart attack? Yes, according to the journal Circulation. Heart attacks are 33 percent more likely in the winter. Anyone with a history of heart attack or heart disease or who is 65 or older is especially at risk.

Why does the risk for heart attack increase in the winter? Turns out, there are lots of reasons.

Cold weather causes our blood vessels to constrict. When the body is trying to stay warm, priority goes to the vital organs, such as the heart, lungs and kidneys. Vessels constrict to make it harder for blood to reach the extremities. This means the heart has to work harder and faster to supply the body with oxygen. As the heart rate and blood pressure rise, so does the risk for blood clots, heart attack and stroke. If there’s already a blockage reducing the supply of blood to the heart, the supply may not be sufficient to meet the demand. Be sure to dress warm, especially your feet, hands and head, so your heart doesn’t have to work so hard.

Snow means an extra chore with shoveling and extra strain on your heart. Your heart is already working harder to keep the body warm. Adding the strain of lifting heavy snow makes it work even harder. You might attribute chest pain experienced after shoveling snow to muscle ache, but it could be your heart. If you must shovel, take frequent breaks, especially if you experience any chest pain, shortness of breath or become sweaty. Better yet, hire the neighbor kid to scoop your drive — kids are not as susceptible to heart disease. Dress in layers to avoid overheating. When blood vessels dilate dramatically, such as when a person overheats, the rapid decrease in blood pressure can decrease the blood supply to the heart.

Winter diets are often overloaded with rich holiday foods, sweets, too much alcohol and creamy comfort foods. Many of these foods have high levels of sodium, which can cause the body to retain fluids, forcing the heart to pump harder to remove it. We tend to eat more in the winter, too. Heavy meals divert more blood to the digestive system, which can strain the heart. Avoid physical activity immediately after meals to keep stress to the heart minimal.

Family drama, a tight budget and hectic holiday schedules can be stressful. Stress is a known risk factor associated with cardiac events. Keep up your usual exercise routine, and focus on ways to de-stress and take care of yourself during the holidays.

Winter often means colds and the flu. Fighting an illness puts extra demands on the heart, especially in the weak or elderly. Fevers cause the heart to beat faster, raising its demand for oxygen and causing dehydration, which can reduce your blood pressure. A sudden decrease in blood pressure can reduce the heart’s oxygen supply. Inflammation from infections or other illnesses can contribute to plaque formation in the arteries. Be sure to get recommended vaccinations to lower your risk of illness.

Winter means longer nights, less sunshine and fewer outdoor activities. Staying indoors can leave you short on vitamin D. Several studies have linked adequate vitamin D with lower blood pressure levels, which in turn can reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke. Bad weather also can make it difficult to keep regular doctor appointments or pick up necessary medications. Too much TV and lack of exercise are other side effects of cold winter days that can be detrimental to your health. Keep a supply of medication large enough that you won’t run out if there is bad weather. Just 10 minutes of sunshine daily is usually enough to keep your vitamin D levels up. Find some exercises that you can do in the house every day.

Winter and holidays also can mean social isolation or depression for many. The British Medical Journal found that those who are lonely or depressed have a 30-percent-increased risk of heart failure. Keep up contact with family and friends by phone if you can’t get out and socialize.

Hypothermia can be a real risk in the cold winter months. When our body temperature falls below 95 degrees, the body can’t produce enough energy to keep the internal body temperature up. Heart failure is the leading cause of death in hypothermia cases. The elderly are especially susceptible due to a lack of subcutaneous fat. They may not know when they are hypothermic. Symptoms include lack of coordination, mental confusion, slowed reactions and sleepiness.

Symptoms of a heart attack can be subtle. If what’s normal activity for you suddenly becomes difficult, you need to think of your heart. When in doubt, call 911 or go to the emergency room to check it out.


Beef and Bean Burritos

Serves 4

8 ounces extra-lean ground beef

1/2 cup chopped onion

1/2 cup chopped red or green bell pepper

2 tsp chili powder

1 can no-added-salt black beans, rinsed and drained

1/2 cup salsa verde

4 8-inch flour tortillas

1/2 cup shredded Mexican cheese blend

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Cook beef with onion and bell pepper in a large skillet over medium-high heat until beef is no longer pink — about 7 minutes. Stir in chili powder; cook 1 minute. Stir in beans and salsa verde; simmer 2 to 3 minutes or until heated through.

Heat tortillas according to package directions. Spoon meat mixture down center of tortillas; top with cheese and cilantro. Fold bottom of tortilla over filling, and roll up burrito-style.

Nutrition Information: 350 calories, 9 g fat, 31 g protein, 40 g carbs, 20 g fiber, 706 mg sodium