McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

McMaster expert offers tips for a heart healthy holiday

Published: December 21, 2012
Greg Curnew
Dr. Greg Curnew, an associate clinical professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiology

It’s the season of joy, peace and goodwill, but it’s also the time of year that brings a spike in heart attacks with most occurring on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.

Dubbed by heart researchers as the 'Merry Christmas Coronary', it can be triggered by stressful events or other risk factors, says cardiologist Dr. Greg Curnew, an associate clinical professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiology of McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine on staff at Hamilton Health Sciences.

A heart attack — caused by a rupture of plaque in the wall of a coronary artery — strikes when you least suspect it, said Curnew. "It’s like a volcano erupting."

Most heart deaths occur out of hospital, with one in four of those dying within one hour of their first-ever symptoms.


Dr. Curnew outlines the signs of a heart attack:

  • Chest pain that lasts for at least 10 minutes — coming on suddenly or slowly — and feeling like heaviness or a steel band tightening around the chest
  • Chest discomfort that spreads to the neck, throat, jaw and shoulder, the back, arms and even the hands
  • For those who don’t experience chest pain, be aware of discomfort in upper parts of the body.
  • A choking feeling in the throat, or arms that feel heavy or useless
  • Breathlessness, nausea or vomiting, a cold sweat, light-headedness

"If you think you are having a heart attack, this is not the time to call telemedicine or your family doctor. Get straight to the hospital," said Curnew.

He recommends chewing two baby aspirins or taking one or two nitroglycerine tables three to five minutes apart — but not if you are on medication for sexual dysfunction, such as Viagra — and call 911 immediately.

While it’s the time of year for overindulging in rich, salty foods, Curnew warns that eating just one fatty meal constricts blood flow in arteries for the next three to four hours.

He advises anyone taking cholesterol-lowering drugs to not stop taking their prescribed dosage.


Dr. Curnew offers potential New Year’s resolutions for consideration:

  • Learn basic life support skills and how to use an external defibrillator.
  • Become an active participant in your health with your doctor and develop a health binder that you constantly update.
  • Join the Good Food Box program; a non-profit fresh fruit and vegetable distribution program which makes fresh, high quality produce affordable and accessible to everyone.
  • If you want to lose weight, join a group or find a health buddy.

"For me, this is a time of year to celebrate and to feel lucky to be here for the holidays — and with a wish to be here next year, too," said Curnew.

Curnew started the Lifestyle Intervention For Ever program (LIFE), held at Ryerson United Church, 842 Main Street East, 17 years ago. The free, adult support program is designed to help people take charge of their own health before problems start. The next meeting is Monday, January 14 at 6:30 p.m.

To contact Dr. Greg Curnew: curnew@hhsc.ca

dr. curnew's health corner
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