Heart Attack Season
Dear Savvy Senior
When I had a heart attack last year my doctor told me to take extra precaution during the winter months because my risks of having another one could increase. Is this true? How can the seasons of the year affect your heart?
-Old Man Winter
Everyone knows winter is cold and flu season, but most people don’t know that it’s also the prime season for heart attacks too. Here’s what you should know.
Heart Attack Season It’s true! In the United States, the risks of having a heart attack during the winter months are twice as high as in the summertime. And, a heart attack in the winter is also more likely to be fatal than a heart attack during any other time of year. Why? Lots of reasons, and they’re not all tied to cold weather.
Even people who live in warm climates have an increased risk.
Wintertime Risks Here are some reasons why heart attacks are more common during the winter than other months and some tips to help you combat them:
Cold weather: When a person gets cold, the body’s automatic response is to narrow the blood vessels. Cutting down on blood flow to the skin means the body doesn’t lose as much heat. But for people who already have arteries filled with plaque, the narrowing of the blood vessels raises the risk that one will become blocked, triggering a heart attack. The narrowing also increases blood pressure, which can strain a diseased heart. So bundle up this winter, and keep your blood flowing freely.
Snow shoveling: Believe it or not, studies show that heart attack rates jump dramatically in the first few days after a major snowstorm, usually a result of snow shoveling. Shoveling snow is incredibly strenuous causing the heart to work harder and raising your blood pressure. Couple that with the cold temperatures and heart attack risk soars. If you must shovel, push rather than lift the snow as much as possible, stay warm and take frequent breaks – or better yet buy a snow blower. And if you’re over age 50, overweight or out of shape, or have suffered a previous heart attack, don’t shovel at all.
New Year’s resolutions: It’s not just shovelers who run the risk of taxing their heart in the winter. Every Jan. 1, millions of people join gyms or start exercise programs as part of their New Year’s resolution to get in shape, and many may overexert themselves too soon. If you have a heart condition or risk factors for heart disease like high cholesterol and high blood pressure, talk to your doctor about what may be appropriate for you.
Stressful season: The holiday season for many people is a very stressful time, causing anxiety, loneliness and depression which are also linked to heart attacks. Check your mood at www.depressionscreening.org and get help, if needed.
Holiday feasting: People tend to eat more, drink more, and gain more weight during the holiday season and winter months – all of which are hard on the ticker and risky for someone with heart disease. Keep a watchful eye on your diet, avoid binging on fatty foods or alcohol, and remember. Everything in moderation!
Less daylight: It’s a fact that less daylight in the winter can worsen mood problems, increase depression risk, and can also affect the heart. Studies have looked at heart-attack patients and found they have lower levels of vitamin D (which comes from sunlight) than healthy people. To boost your vitamin D intake during the dark winter months, everyone over 50 should take a daily vitamin that contains at least 400 IU (international units) of vitamin D. Those over age 70 need at least 600 IU.
Flu: The flu is another culprit responsible for the winter surge in heart attacks. A flu infection can increase blood pressure, stir up white blood cell activity, and change C-reactive protein and fibrinogen levels in the blood – all bad news for your heart. Get an annual flu shot (see www.flucliniclocator.org). It can cut your heart attack risk in half.
Dear Savvy Senior,
Can you tell me about a new financial product called longevity insurance? With longevity running in my genes – dad lived to age 94 and mom’s 92 and still going strong – I worry about outliving my money.
-Long Living Larry
Outliving one’s retirement savings is a financial nightmare that haunts many retirees. That’s why a handful of insurers have recently introduced a new type of annuity that caters specifically to that fear. Here’s what you should know.
Longevity Insurance Now you can actually buy insurance that pays you for living a long life. It’s called “longevity insurance,” and like an annuity, it pays you income for life, but only if and when you make it to a certain age. How does it work? You give an insurance company a lump-sum of money when you retire (say age 60 or 65), in return for monthly income starting at age 80 or 85.
Advantages The advantage of choosing longevity insurance over an annuity is that the payouts are much higher. For example, a 65-year-old man who puts $50,000 into a longevity policy can expect to receive around $3,400 per month (that comes to $40,800 per year) starting at age 85. With a traditional income annuity, he’d get only around $640 per month. Why such a big difference? Because the insurance companies are betting you won’t be around to collect. National statistics show that a 65-year-old male will live, on average, to 82, and a 65-year-old woman to 85. Another great benefit with longevity insurance is it gives you the freedom to spend down your nest egg, knowing you’ve locked up an income stream for your later years.
Drawbacks As tantalizing as those big payouts may be, longevity insurance has its drawbacks. For starters, a basic longevity policy offers no escape hatch for you to retrieve your money during the 20 years or so you’re waiting for benefits to start. And your heirs won’t get death benefits if you die before you begin to collect.
Recognizing that many people might balk at these limitations, insurers are also offering add-ons to the basic policy that include a death benefit to be paid to heirs, early payments for nursing home care, cash withdrawal options and inflation protection. The downside, however, is that every piece you add on reduces your monthly benefit.
When to Buy Most people purchase longevity insurance at or just prior to the time they retire. Figure out how much of your essential expenses you can cover with Social Security, pensions, and other forms of guaranteed income – and consider buying coverage for the rest. But don’t overdue it! Experts recommend you use no more than 10 to 15 percent of your assets to purchase a policy, and leave the rest in your portfolio to provide income until it kicks in. Also, when choosing a product, remember that you’re buying income that will not kick in for 20 years or more. So be sure to go with a company with a good reputation and solid financials. Some major players offering this type of insurance are MetLife, Hartford, Integrity and New York Life.
Alternatives If you don’t like the idea of longevity insurance, you could always invest the money that you would spend on this type of insurance on your own and come up with a similar result. If you took your $50,000 and invested it at age 65, for example, assuming a conservative 6 percent growth per year, you would end up with $160,000 in 20 years. At age 85, you could then begin spending the money or use it to buy an immediate annuity. An 85-year-old man who invested $160,000 in an immediate annuity would get about $2,200 per month for the rest of his life. That’s a lot less than you’d receive with a longevity policy, but you’d have access to the money for emergencies or to leave to your heirs.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” books.