January marks peak of cardiovascular-disease deaths and not just because we’re shoveling snow

Dr. John Whyte, of WebMD, says cold weather can lead to more heart attacks, strokes

January not only marks the month when some of the coldest temperatures in the U.S. are recorded but also when the most deaths from cardiovascular disease occur.

"We all know someone who has that heart attack while shoveling snow after a big snowstorm, but that’s not what’s really causing the heart attacks," said Dr. John Whyte, chief medical officer for WebMD.

Whyte said it is actually the cold weather that causes extra strain on the cardiovascular system. He said that cold air causes blood vessels to constrict, which increases blood pressure.

"That increases the risk of a heart attack or stroke," Whyte said.


Higher instances of flu are also to blame for an increase in cardiovascular-disease deaths during the first month of the year, according to Whyte. He said the virus makes platelets in our blood stickier.

"That stickiness of the platelets actually causes clots, and that’s what can increase the risk of a heart attack," Whyte said.

The typical decrease in physical activity during winter can also lead to more instances of heart attacks and strokes, according to Whyte. He said the extra weight that people gain during colder months puts extra pressure on the heart. He recommended people stay active to ward off the extra pounds.

"Going for a walk, performing some jumping jacks and some other activity goes a long way to helping reduce your heart risk," Whyte said.

Know the symptoms of heart attack, stroke

According to Whyte, people who experience symptoms such as chest pain, nausea, shortness of breath or irregular heartbeat should seek medical attention right away. He said symptoms of a heart attack or stroke can be much more subtle in women.

"I always tell people, ‘Listen to your body,’" Whyte said. "If something doesn’t feel right go see your doctor, go to the emergency room because with heart attacks and strokes, time really does matter."