Can cold weather put your heart at risk?


This has been one of the worst winters in a long time and unfortunately, it's not over yet. While it's easy to feel that it is cold outside, you may not realize that the weather can also take a hidden toll on your heart.

CBS News medical contributor Dr. Tara Narula, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, joined the "CBS This Morning" co-hosts to talk about how cold weather can impact your heart.

"We don't talk about this (cold weather) a lot as a risk factor for heart disease and stroke," she said. "But, really cold temperature in particular, does several things to the heart. It causes the blood vessels in the body to constrict, which decreases the supply of blood flow and oxygen to the heart muscle. It also increases the demand on your heart. So, your blood pressure goes up and your heart rate goes up."

Narula said that the "supply-demand mismatch" is what puts you at risk for a heart attack. In addition, she said the cold weather can make your blood thicker, bringing about clots that can make you more prone to heart attack and stroke.

Also, it's not just the cold weather that can cause problems, but the shorter, darker days may also leave their mark.

"The body has its own natural, circadian rhythm and we know even on regular days, in the morning hours we're at higher risk for heart attack and sudden death," she said. "In the winter, where there's less sunlight, it off-shifts or offsets our hormonal settings."

Narula pointed out there has been research over the past 10 to 15 years that supports the argument that there are increased rates of cardiovascular events in the winter months.

Winter lifestyle choices can impact your heart as well. In cold weather people turn to unhealthier comfort foods and allow diet and exercise routines to go by the wayside.

"In the winter we tend to stay home, eat more fatty foods -- comfort foods -- like mac 'n cheese and mashed potatoes, salty foods. Maybe drink a bit more alcohol around the holidays," she said. "In general there is seasonal affective disorder that we talk about too. Where you want to eat carbs, stay in bed, you're a little depressed. And all of this plays into your risk for heart disease."

Since spring officially starts in three weeks on March 20, Narula said that the important thing to do between now and then is to stay warm.

"You don't want to get hypothermia," she said. "But on top of that, people go out and they shovel snow. It's important to shovel slowly, use a small shovel and also take frequent breaks. Don't do anything that's strenuous and going to exert your body a lot and all of a sudden."

To see the full interview with Dr. Narula, watch the video in the player above