Snow’s other hazard – shoveling can provoke heart attacks
Sedentary snow shovelers, especially middle-aged males, may be digging themselves 6 feet under when the temperatures drop, if they’re not careful, public health officials warn.
The authorities have long known about the correlation between shoveling heavy snow and heart attacks, but how much snow and for what populations remain a question.
Death rates went up as the snowfall was higher and the temperatures were lower, according to a recent study released by the Centers for Disease Control based in Atlanta.
The study dissected winter deaths using mortality data from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and weather information obtained from the National Climatic Data Center. It found that a combination of only 1 inch of snow and temperatures below 20 degrees caused the death rate from heart attacks to triple among men aged 35 to 49. The risk went up for men of all ages.
Women fared better. The only significant increase in death rates from winter weather were for women older than 65, who had higher risks of respiratory illness or stroke.
The evidence suggests that the association between higher mortality and extreme weather conditions are rooted in physiology.
When people engage in typical winter activities such as snow shoveling that account for both exposure to cold and increased physical stress, these biological mechanisms likely increase the risk of a lethal heart attack.
“Cold and exertion can prompt a rupture,” local cardiologist Gerrie Gardner said. Gardner, who works for Reno-based Sierra Nevada Cardiology and and its educational arm – the Sierra Heart Institute, points to a few factors that make snow shoveling, including body mechanics, a lethal combination.
“When people are doing arm exercises, this is inefficient as far as the heart muscle goes,” Gardner said, also noting that bearing down with the shovel and not using legs in the activity adds to the problem.
“All these things put together can cause not enough (blood) flow to the heart muscle,” she said.
Conditioning, conditioning, conditioning, Gardner stressed.
People who don’t get enough exercise should refrain from performing an unbalanced, strenuous activity like shoveling, she advised, equating the exertion to a maximum treadmill test.
Gardner has the numbers to match the concern.
More than 1,200 people in the United States die after a major snowstorm, amounting to a 22 percent increase, the American Journal of Cardiology reports.
First and foremost, Gardner recommends that people who will eventually shovel snow, should exercise regularly beforehand. This means performing an activity that increases heart rate for at least 30 minutes, five days a week.
Secondly, don’t smoke.
Also, drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated will decrease the risk of blood clotting.
El Dorado County Public Health Department officials were unavailable for comment due to a staff meeting Thursday.
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