A woman's hands holding a red heart on a wooden table.

GriefSpeak: Holiday Heart Syndrome – Mari Nardolillo Dias

By Mari Nardolillo Dias

“.. And in my heart you will remain forever young” (Rod Stewart)

’Tis the season for heart attacks and holiday heart syndrome. Unfortunately, I am privy to the traumatic grief associated with the sudden loss of a spouse due to a heart attack. One of my clients sobbed while saying that she just went into the kitchen to get some tea, and when she returned she found her husband slouched on the couch, dead. Some of you may remember the story in “GriefSpeak, Volume 1, about the woman who dismissed her husband’s phone call only to be told he died from a massive heart attack with his cell phone in his hand. Others were informed of the sudden passing of their spouse through a phone call:

“He was just going to work for a bit, and never returned. It was hours before someone found him!

“He went hunting with some buddies, and when he didn’t answer their call they searched through the woods and found him.”

As mentioned below, many of the spouses mentioned above were in their forties. On the edge of 50, I think they are too young to die. “According to Medline, holiday heart syndrome is described as the “prevalence of cardiac rhythm disorders related to binge drinking and eating during the holidays”.  Another study found that heart attack risk spiked 15% between the Christmas and New Year holidays, with Christmas Eve, specifically at 10 pm with rates increasing to 40%.  Generally speaking, winter itself is high season for heart issues, due to the fact that cold weather shrinks the blood vessels to your heart and decreases the amount of blood flow (  Although experts are not sure what factors may be involved, David Erling at Lund University’s Department of Cardiology told USA Today that emotional distress, combined with acute experiences of anger, sadness, grief and stress increase our risk of myocardial infarction.”  Of course, “excessive eating and drinking, and long distance traveling can increase the risk of heart attack”, along with preexisting problems of high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Heart attacks are the number one killer of both men and women, causing more deaths than all forms of cancer combined. In men, the risk for a heart attack increases after the age of 45 (with the average of age of 64.5) with women after the age of 50 (with the average age of 70.3).  Heart attacks strike someone in the United States every 34 seconds. (

The 5 major facts concerning heart disease include: exercise, age, gender, family tree, cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, weight, and unhealthy diet. Fortunately, holiday heart syndrome tends to be acute after bouts of drinking. When you stop drinking, it tends to resolve on its own. So, if you notice a faster than normal or fluttering heart rate while drinking, it could likely mean you need to lay off the alcohol (

To those who have lost someone to a heart attack, I hold your heart in the cupped palms of my hands. This is a trauma due to the suddenness and unexpectedness of it – and for those of you who may struggle with heart issues and/or some of the contributing factors, please take care of yourself, heed any warnings, and visit your cardiologist. We want to grow old with you. We don’t want you to remain “forever young”.


To read all of Dr. Mari Nardolillo Dias stories for RINewsToday, go to:

Dr. Mari Dias is a nationally board-certified counselor, holds a Fellow in Thanatology and is certified in both grief counseling and complicated grief. Dias is a Certified death doula, and has a Certificate in Psychological Autopsy.

She is Professor of Clinical Mental Health, Master of Science program, Johnson & Wales University. Dias is the director of GracePointe Grief Center, in North Kingstown, RI.  For more information, go to:
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