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Surprising Heart Attack Triggers

May 27, 2014 09:00AM ● By Cate Reynolds
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 720,000 Americans have a heart attack every year.

Heart attacks, which can be fatal, typically occur when a blood clot blocks blood from flowing through the coronary artery.

For decades, heart attack risk factors have included age (men who are 45 or older and women who are 55 or older), tobacco, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, family history of heart attack, obesity, and illegal drug use.

But recently, scientists have discovered newer triggers for this national health problem.

Eating a big meal – Studies have shown eating a heavy meal can trigger a heart attack, especially in people who already have heart disease. Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston interviewed nearly 2,000 patients shortly after they had heart attacks. Of those, 158 said they had an unusually large meal during the 26 hours before the attack. Twenty-five patients ate the meal two hours before the attack. Researchers say fatty meals can impair the endothelium, the inner layer of the arteries. Eating can also raise the levels of norepinephrine, a hormone that can increase blood pressure and heart rate. The temporary rise in blood pressure creates extra work for the heart. Risk minimizer: Watch the calorie amount and size of your meals.

Extreme emotions – Intense happiness and severe grief can impact the heart’s electrical system, sparking a heart attack. Surprising events can cause these emotions, as well as an involuntary and sudden increase in one’s heart rate and blood pressure. Grief studies show the risk of heart attack is strongest within the first 24 hours of losing a loved one and can remain high for a month after the death. Other studies show men who are quick to anger are five times more likely to have an early heart attack. Risk minimizer: Talk with a physician or psychologist about ways to manage extreme emotions.

Sudden, strenuous exertion – Regular aerobic exercise keeps the heart healthy. But people who are sedentary should be careful before attempting intense exercise, as it can lead to a heart attack. This especially applies to people with a family history of heart disease, moderate or severe high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol. Vigorous physical exertion can include everything from running and jumping rope to shoveling snow and sexual activity. Risk minimizer: Talk with your physician about the best way to start an exercise routine.

Cold weather – Cold temperatures cause arteries to constrict. That can then cause a jump in blood pressure and increased chance for a heart attack. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center found that 53 percent more heart attacks were reported in winter than summer. Risk minimizer: Bundle up when going outside in cold weather, and take breaks from activities like snow shoveling.

Psoriasis – Psoriasis, a chronic skin disease marked by itchy, scaly patches, is an autoimmune disease that can cause chronic inflammation. That inflammation can cause a heart attack. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine found people with severe psoriasis, affecting more than 10 percent of the skin surface, are at nearly twice the risk of heart and blood vessel disease compared to those without psoriasis. Risk minimizer: Talk with a dermatologist about ways to manage the disease.

It’s important to keep your heart as healthy as possible. If you have concerns about your risk for heart attack or overall heart health, contact your primary care physician or cardiologist.

Provided by University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center.