Experts: Here’s Why December Is the Biggest Month for Heart Attacks

Experts share important data: While it's the most wonderful time of the year, it's also the most dangerous. Here's how to mitigate your "holiday heart" risk.

If it seems like unfortunate events seem to happen this time of the year, several studies suggest that’s an accurate observation. One major cause of medical events around the holidays is called “holiday heart,” whose name unfortunately doesn’t refer to that cozy, glowy feeling you might feel when you see friends and family. Repeated research has shown that more heart attacks occur in the last week of December than at any other time of the year. 

Specifically, the American Heart Association (AHA) has issued a warning that more deaths related to cardiac events happen on Christmas Day, December 25, than any other day of the year. That’s followed by December 26 and New Year’s Day, according to one study.

Another study found that heart attacks themselves peak on Christmas Eve, December 24, around 10 p.m. and tend to be most prevalent in people over the age of 75.

Adding a twist to this year’s equation, the AHA notes that throughout the year, most heart attacks tend to happen on Mondays, which is when Christmas Day falls this year. (Though on the other hand, experts have said Monday heart attacks could be more often attributed to the daily work-week grind, which Americans will miss this Christmas if they’ll be off work.)

Get The Healthy @Reader’s Digest newsletter 

Experts explain why heart attacks peak in December

The reasons heart attacks and heart-related fatalities cluster during this time aren’t 100% clear to experts. “We don’t know exactly what triggers this increase in heart attacks during the holidays—it’s likely a combination of factors,” said Johanna Contreras, M.D., M.Sc., FAHA, clinical volunteer for the AHA and a cardiologist. Winter weather can be a factor as it restricts blood flow, but Dr. Contreras also points to holiday stress and the tendency to consume richer foods and more alcohol during the holiday season.

Indeed, says Dr. Rami Hashish, PhD, DPT, a biomechanics researcher, this disregard for diet that can result in concerning cardiovascular changes can be partly due to “the connection between excess drinking and the development of dangerous heart arrhythmias.” Dr. Hashish says common signs of heart attack this time of year can include the following (though may not be limited to):

  • difficulty breathing
  • anxiety
  • chest pain
  • a racing pulse.

The Best and Worst Diets for Your Cholesterol, Says UCLA Cardiologist

How to prevent holiday heart attacks and strokes

Dr. Contreras suggests even for seemingly healthy people, “getting checked out and receiving prompt treatment if there is a problem is one of the best gifts you can give yourself and your loved ones for all the celebrations to come.”

However, always call 911 if you suspect a heart attack or stroke. Rapid treatment is essential for someone suffering from either, and it’s better to err on the side of caution. In fact, says Dr. Contreras, until help arrives, “Hands-Only CPR is something nearly everyone can learn and do. We encourage at least one person in every family to learn CPR because statistics show that most cardiac arrests occur outside the hospital and often in the home.”

And while nothing replaces a certified class to learn the life-saving technique, she suggests watching the AHA’s instructional video on the technique. “Watching the video and learning Hands-Only CPR could be a lifesaving and lifechanging activity for the family to do together as you’re gathered for the holidays,” says Contreras.

The 3 Foods This Cardiologist NEVER Eats—and 5 Foods He Eats Every Day

Tips for preventing holiday heart attacks

The AHA recommends that everyone takes these precautions to make the holiday season safe and heart healthy. “We do know there are ways to mitigate your risk for a deadly heart attack. So, we encourage everyone to pause during the holiday hustle and bustle and make note of these important steps that could be lifesaving,” said Contreras.

  • Know the common and uncommon signs: Warning signs of a heart attack or stroke can be different for men and women, read up on both.
  • Watch your diet and alcohol intake: Be sure to eat and drink in moderation, make room in your day for healthy food, and mind healthy sodium intake.
  • Practice stress reduction: Don’t push yourself beyond your mental and emotional limits. The physiological effects of stress are very real.
  • Make time for exercise: The AHA recommends 150 minutes of physical activity per week. Work movement into your holiday schedule.
  • Take all of your medication: Travel and a busy holiday schedule can disrupt your routine. Be sure to continue taking essential medication and monitoring blood pressure numbers if necessary.

Medically reviewed by Latoya Julce RN, BSN, on January 25, 2024

Meaghan Cameron, MS
Meaghan has more than 15 years of experience in writing and editing food, travel, fitness, sports, and lifestyle material. Her professional journey began at Reader's Digest, where she honed her skills and developed a passion for creating engaging content. Throughout her career, she has contributed her expertise to renowned platforms such as Food Network, Martha Stewart, Outside Television, and Eat This, Not That! Additionally, Meaghan has valuable experience in radio and video production. Before entering the world of content creation, Meaghan spent more than a decade working in the restaurant industry. This hands-on experience has provided her with insider knowledge and secrets about the workings of the industry. Meaghan holds a bachelor's degree in English from the State University of New York (SUNY) Purchase and a master's degree in publishing from Pace University.