Studies show that heart attacks increase during the holiday season. Aside from the risk factors for coronary artery disease — smoking, hypertension, high cholesterol, age and lack of exercise certain other triggers such as time of year can play a role in holiday heart attacks.

A previous study showed that for cardiac and noncardiac diseases, a spike in daily mortality occurs during the Christmas/New Year holiday period. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and Tufts University School of Medicine examined 53 million U.S. death certificates from 1973 to 2001.

This increase in holiday heart attacks may be even more significant for women who are often (a) stressed during the holidays and (b) victims of the silent heart attacks those with no symptoms, minimal symptoms or unrecognized symptoms. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., killing 289,758 women in 2013 — that's about 1 in every 4 female deaths.

Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms. Often, women may have symptoms, such as indigestion or a case of the flu, or they may think that they strained a muscle in their chests or upper backs. They may have discomfort in their jaws or arms. Some women have long prolonged excessive fatigue, which could mistakenly be attributed to the busy often stressful holiday season.

When comparing the two genders, women are more likely to die from a silent heart attack (58 percent for women and 23 percent for men). Overall, a silent heart attack is associated with a triple risk of dying from heart disease and a 34 percent increased risk of dying from all causes.

Stress-induced cardiomyopathy, which commonly affects women from ages 50 to 70, is a weakening of the left ventricle, the heart's main pumping chambers, usually brought on by the release of stress hormones, which shock the heart and cause changes in the heart muscles that result in the inability of the left ventricle to work properly.

Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center cardiologist Karla Kurrelmeyer, M.D., has seen more than a few cases of stress-induced cardiomyopathy around the holidays. In their quest to get everything done on time during the holiday season, some women will ignore the mild symptoms of a silent heart attack and should be aware of the following subtle symptoms:

  • Extreme weakness, anxiety or shortness of breath.
  • Discomfort, pressure, heaviness or pain in the chest, arm, below the breastbone or in the middle of the back
  • Sweating, nausea, vomiting, dizziness
  • Fullness, indigestion, tightness in the throat area
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeats

Women experiencing holiday stress would be wise to include some exercise such as walking, running, yoga or meditation in their busy routines. According to Kurrelmeyer, the holidays should be a joyous time spent with family and friends at home, not with doctors in an emergency room.