To Your Health: Don’t have a heart attack while in paradise
By Dr. Francis Almeda July 2, 2013 1:56PM
Updated: August 4, 2013 6:17AM
A summer vacation is the perfect way to unwind from the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives. The pace is slower; our stress levels fall; and when we finally arrive at our destination, the fun begins.
The last thing on anyone’s mind is a health crisis in paradise.
Yet that’s exactly what happened to actor James Gandolfini, who recently suffered a fatal heart attack while on vacation in Rome.
Unfortunately, vacation-related heart deaths are more common than you might think. And while most don’t make worldwide headlines like Gandolfini’s, researchers have found that heart problems are the leading cause of death among vacation travelers.
The reason? The physical and emotional aspects of traveling may put added stress on the heart — particularly for those who have been diagnosed with heart disease — or those who are at added risk, being overweight, having high cholesterol, being diabetic or smoking.
Let’s face it: Vacations are a time when most of us throw caution to the wind.
We eat and drink more than we should. We exert ourselves more than usual, especially if the trip involves physically demanding activities such as heavy walking, hiking or scuba diving. And because we may be vacationing in a different time zone or lose track of time altogether, we forget to take our prescription medications.
A 2003 study in the Netherlands followed 92 Dutch people who had heart attacks while on vacation. The research found that heart attacks were more likely to occur during the first two days of vacation than on other days.
And while Gandolfini’s vacation may have been unrelated to his heart attack, he did have a number of risk factors that put him at elevated risk. He was overweight and smoked.
But before you put your vacation plans on hold, there’s good news too.
Several studies have shown that people who take regular vacations are less likely to die from heart attacks, and most people who vacation won’t have a heart attack at all.
Overall, the most important thing for any of us to remember as we plan our summer getaways: Know your limits.
If you have risk factors for heart disease or may be out of shape, adjust your vacation accordingly. An individual who is overweight, for instance, might want to reconsider a hiking trip to a national park during the hottest part of summer.
And while eating and drinking alcohol is often a big part of a summer getaway, remember to do so in moderation. Eating rich, heavy foods followed by three or four drinks is not healthy for anyone whether they’re on vacation or not.
Instead, choose fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats instead of rich foods with high fat and sodium content. Limit alcohol consumption to one or two drinks per day.
And for those with known heart disease, before choosing where you’d like to vacation, consider your heart’s current condition.
In general, people with heart disease should be able to walk 100 yards and climb 12 steps before attempting a long flight. Check with your cardiologist before planning your trip or booking your flight.
People with severe heart disease, particularly those with heart failure, should also consider the climate and elevation of their destination. Heart conditions are affected by elevation and hot, humid weather.
And if you’re recovering from a recent heart attack or other heart event, your doctor may want you to vacation near home. In general, I recommend not traveling out of state for the first few months following a heart attack. There are countless hotels located less than an hour away in Chicago that offer an excellent vacation experience close to home.
If you have existing heart disease and are planning a summer getaway, I highly recommend you follow these tips:
♦ Bring all prescription medications. This is especially important when traveling abroad as many drugs may not have a foreign equivalent.
♦ Keep a list of all medications and dosages with you. This will come in handy should you need medical attention while on vacation.
♦ Have your doctor’s contact information with you. If you have a mobile phone, store it in your contacts so it’s easy to find. If you don’t, bring a business card with the name and number, or write it down on a piece of paper and keep it in your wallet. If possible, get the name of a doctor or hospital at your vacation destination.
♦ Have a summary of your medical/cardiac history on hand. Include the results of any recent stress tests, angiograms, echocardiograms, bypass surgeries, etc.
♦ Bring a copy of your most recent EKG. In case of a cardiac emergency, doctors will want to compare your last electrocardiogram with the one they just obtained.
♦ Get to the airport early. That way, you won’t have to run to your departure gate. Drink plenty of water, stay away from caffeine and move your legs as much as possible to prevent blood clots.
♦ If you’re flying, keep your medications in your carry-on bags in their original pharmacy packaging so you won’t experience hassles at airport security.
Following these simple suggestions will lower your stress levels and prepare you with useful information should a medical emergency arise when you’re out of town.
Finally, if you want to assess your heart disease risk factors before you leave on vacation, Ingalls Health System has made it easy for you. Their free online HeartAware cardiovascular risk assessment can tell you if you’re at risk for heart disease in less than seven minutes. HeartAware also raises your awareness about heart disease through easy-to-read educational material.
To take the test, visit www.Ingalls.org/HeartAware and start your summer vacation with peace of mind.
Dr. Almeda is a board-certified interventional cardiologist on staff at Ingalls Memorial Hospital.