With each morning getting colder and winter beginning to set in, it becomes more important to check your blood pressure (BP) -- which is known to be higher in winter than in summer, putting you at risk for stroke and heart attack.
You might be thinking, why winter? The answer is simple, but its implications are not.
With the lower average temperature, blood vessels narrow, forcing your BP up because more pressure is needed to carry blood through the smaller arteries. High BP then damages the lining of blood vessels, which over time makes them susceptible to atherosclerosis (or as many patients refer to it, the hardening of the arteries).
Early detection is critical in preventing complications with your heart health. For patients that exhibit risk factors for vascular disease, preventive health screenings provide an in-depth knowledge of one's health status. Armed with a health "report card," patients are then able to have informed conversations with their provider of health care about the best course of treatment.
Want to know if you're at risk for a heart attack or stroke? If you are over age 40 and find yourself nodding your head at two or more of the risk factors detailed below, seek out a preventive health screening in your community.
• Family history. Adhering to the Paleo diet and attending Barry's Bootcamp religiously? That's great, but unfortunately living a healthy, active lifestyle isn't the whole story. You may still be at risk for vascular disease if a family member has suffered from a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular disease.
• Smoking or even living with a smoker. Even if you have never smoked a cigarette in your life, inhaling secondhand smoke puts you at risk. In fact, the American Cancer Society reports that an estimated 42,000 deaths from heart disease in people who are current non-smokers.
• You don't know your stats. One of the most dangerous (albeit common) responses we physicians get from patients is that they are unsure of whether they have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or are at risk for diabetes. Skipping visits with your family doctor because you're too busy to make an appointment puts you at risk simply because you're unaware.
• Your age. Medical advancements have resulted in people living longer than ever, which has led our society to proclaim, "50 is the new 40!" I often see patients who are in their 80s who say they feel 60. This is an amazing result of modern medicine -- but it has led to a false sense of confidence among patients that meet risk factors for vascular disease. Many patients exhibit no symptoms of atherosclerosis, which may account for the fact that 80 percent of strokes are preventable.
• High cholesterol. Many patients are aware that high cholesterol puts them at risk for heart attack or stroke, but few know that recent studies have shown that "bad" cholesterol (LDL) levels spike in the colder months. Researchers have attributed this finding to everything from a tendency to eat rich foods and skip workouts in winter to lack of sun exposure and therefore lower vitamin D levels.
• Lastly, Diabetes. Our country is facing an ever-growing diabetes epidemic. 29.1 million people suffer from diabetes (that's 9.3 percent of the population!), and an additional 8.1 million are estimated to be undiagnosed. Making matters worse, according to the Dept. of Health and Human Services, one in four Americans suffers from multiple chronic conditions, meaning that those suffering from diabetes are more likely to also suffer from atherosclerosis or another chronic disease.
Some of these risk factors -- namely, age and family history -- are entirely out of our control, which is why it's important to be diligent when it comes to preventive measures. In a variety of cases, the best practice is to remain informed of your health status through regular screenings -- early detection can be a life saver.
Stay informed by seeking out community health events that are low-cost or free, and always consult with your doctor.