A holiday health warning to take to heart about drinking

boozexmas-150x150Cardiologists and other doctors have words to the wise for the aging, party-hearty-for-the-holidays crowd: Excessive boozing, as part of their seasonal merry making, puts those who partake of too much liquid cheer at heightened risk of heart problems.

The last thing, too, that public safety advocates would want to see in times when the nation is battling a rising road toll is any more intoxicated motorists.

Experts have become sufficiently savvy about the health damage caused heavy seasonal drinking that they developed a name for the harmful condition: holiday heart syndrome, the New York Times reported:

“Medical professionals have warned about the cardiac risks the holiday season carries for decades. In the 1970s, doctors gave a name to the particular toll of celebratory binge drinking: holiday heart syndrome. They had noticed otherwise healthy patients streaming into the emergency room after drinking during holiday festivities with atrial fibrillation, or irregular heart rhythms. ‘We see it in young people, old people, anybody,’ said Dr. Kristen Brown, a cardiovascular fellow at the University of Nebraska Medical Center who has researched holiday heart syndrome … ‘Holiday heart’ is really just another phrase for alcohol-induced atrial fibrillation, or A-fib, which is a rapid, chaotic heart rhythm. A-fib is one of the most common cardiac conditions, said Dr. Gregory Marcus, a professor of medicine in the division of cardiology at the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied alcohol and A-fib.

“Many people with A-fib won’t have any symptoms, said Dr. Hugh Calkins, a professor of cardiology at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Those who do have symptoms might experience fluttering or pounding heart palpitations, chest pain or shortness of breath; some have extreme fatigue and even pass out. For some people, A-fib comes on in brief spells, but for others the condition can become permanent. Still, it’s especially important to watch out for symptoms because A-fib can increase the risk that you will have a stroke; it has also been linked to dementia and heart failure, Dr. Calkins added. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the death rate from A-fib has been rising for more than two decades, an increase doctors partly attribute to an aging population in the U.S.”

Several factors increase the chances for A-fib, including increasing age, obesity, tallness, and a family predisposition to the condition, the newspaper reported.

“Doctors are still trying to understand exactly how alcohol affects the heart, Dr. Marcus said. One working theory is that alcohol induces alterations in your nervous system, which typically regulates heart rate. Excessive alcohol may also change the electrical signals within your heart, which coordinate the contraction of your cardiac cells. Over the last 10 years, scientists have strengthened the link between alcohol and A-fib. One study showed that just a single drink a day can raise the risk of A-fib by 16%. But even though alcohol increases your chance of developing A-fib, that increased chance may not be drastic for the average person.”

The experts interviewed by the newspaper said that patients may not know they are experiencing A-fib symptoms, especially if they are under the influence and partying aggressively. They may be concerned but delay seeing a doctor. That’s an unwise step that could further increase their prospects for heart problems.

Holiday heart syndrome can be avoided by drinkers who also consume lots of water and don’t skip or go too light on eating. Those who plan to drink a lot should keep up their exercise regimens.

They also could, of course, slash their alcohol consumption — an idea that road safety advocates would endorse as they try to determine ways to bring down the nation’s spiking road toll. As NPR reported:

“The number of traffic fatalities across the country continues to rise. In fact, traffic deaths hit a 16-year high in 2021, even though people were driving less because of the pandemic. Safety advocates say most states are not doing enough to protect drivers, passengers, or pedestrians, and they’re urging leaders to implement more safety measures.”

NPR cited the work of the Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety, a group that just released its “20th Annual Roadmap to Safety report, detailing more than a dozen traffic safety measures they’re encouraging state legislatures, Congress and regulatory agencies to enact.”

The advocates say the nation faces significant challenges with road safety, reporting:

“All road users should be able to depend on the safety, reliability, and accessibility of our nation’s roads and highways. Tragically, more than 115 people are killed and nearly 6,250 more are injured in crashes every day, imposing an enormous physical, emotional, and economic cost … according to [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration], 42,915 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2021. This is an increase of 10.5% over 2020 and a continuation of the recent upward trajectory of skyrocketing fatalities. This data suggest that while fewer crashes may be occurring, they are deadlier. NHTSA has expressed concern that the fatality increases are due, in part, to speeding, impairment, and not buckling up. The latest data show that in 2020, 2.28 million people were injured in crashes — a decrease of 17% — with police-reported crashes also dropping by 22%. Fatalities in large truck crashes also jumped by 13% in 2021, resulting in more than 5,600 people killed. In addition to the physical and emotional toll of crashes, they also impose a significant financial burden on society.

“The annual economic cost of motor vehicle crashes is $314 billion. When loss of life, pain and decreased quality of life are added to economic costs, it is estimated to exceed $1 trillion. Moreover, according to the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS), motor vehicle crashes cost employers $72.2 billion in direct crash-related expenses in 2019.”

The advocates have a multipoint legislative campaign plan, calling for lawmakers at the local, state, and federal levels to increase requirements for motorists and passengers to use safety equipment in vehicles, including front and rear seat belts, child seats, and motorcycle helmets. The group also is demanding stricter measures governing young motorists use of vehicles, as well as measures to deal with driver impairment, intoxication, distraction, and speeding.

Good ideas. In my practice, I and my colleagues see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage inflicted on pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers by motorcycle, vehicle, and truck wrecks. The country had made significant progress in reducing road harms but the positive trends reversed in recent years and went off the rails during the pandemic.

We are all now to too vulnerable to the personal, medical, and financial havoc that can result when we just happen to step into an intersection when a careless motorist decides to speed through, or when we are riding home at night and an intoxicated driver loses control. We have an individual responsibility to right this wrong. We can slow down (as the District of Columbia has encouraged us to do by reducing speed limits). We can redouble our caution for pedestrians and bike riders. We can use the many, effective safety devices in our vehicles, notably seat belts and other restraints.

We can do our part to ensure we don’t drive while distracted — especially while texting or using electronic devices — drunk, drugged (with recreational or prescription drugs), or otherwise impaired, especially by sleepiness. We can return to the fundamental idea of reciprocal altruism by restoring basic courtesy, consideration, and concern for others. This means we take to heart the idea that we won’t, and neither will others, engage in reckless, aggressive conduct behind the wheel — flouting common sense laws, speeding, and ignoring stop and other signs.

We have much work to do to better protect our hearts and to slash road injuries and deaths.

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