At What Age Should You Stop Shoveling Snow?

shoveling snow

Waking up in the morning to several inches of snow can turn our landscape into a lovely wonderland. It can bring back nostalgia for those childhood days when we would sit in front of the television or radio and listen closely for the treasured announcement that school was canceled!

During those days, shoveling snow often took a backseat to snowball fights and sled rides.

Then we got older. We might still appreciate the snow for the beauty it brings, but for many, snow means shoveling off the sidewalks to make them safer or shoveling the driveway to get the car out so we can go to work or meet other obligations. These days, snow might be a massive inconvenience (albeit a pretty one).

But unfortunately, snow can be deadly, too.

You might have heard of a neighbor or friend who had a serious cardiac event during or after shoveling snow. It’s become common on the local news – the day after a big snow hits, someone is reported to have died from the exertion of shoveling out those fluffy mounds of white drifts. For the longest time, the dangers of shoveling snow were based on anecdotal evidence. Now, however, we know that there is definitely truth to seniors having a greater risk of heart attack while shoveling.

When Shoveling Snow Becomes a Danger

The American Journal of Emergency Medicine reports that an average of 11,500 people each year are treated in emergency rooms for incidents related to shoveling snow, based on data from 1990 to 2006. And during those 16 years, 1,647 people died of cardiac-related incidents as a result of snow-shoveling. That breaks down to just over 100 people each year.

And keep in mind that those numbers are based on individuals who were treated in emergency rooms. That means that there were many who passed away before they got to that point, perhaps while shoveling snow or immediately after, that wouldn’t be recorded in the study.

But why does this happen? There are many reasons why shoveling snow can become dangerous. Some of the potential reasons include:

·         When you shovel snow, it’s usually only a few times a year. That means that muscles you might seldom use are suddenly called to the task. And while you are vigorously moving your upper body, your lower body remains mostly stationary, which allows blood to pool in the lower extremities.

·         Your heart rate and blood pressure go up and stay elevated during the time you are shoveling snow.

·         You are working in very cold air. That cold air constricts the arteries, which can decrease how much oxygen is getting to your blood.

·         You are breathing in very cold air. Who hasn’t taken in a deep breath of cold air and felt the pressure or pain in their chest, as if it were hard to breathe?

·         You might also hold your breath as you lift a heavy load of snow on the shovel, which can disrupt your body’s rhythms and put more stress on your heart.

·         Finally, you might be under psychological stress as well. Let’s say you are worried about getting the snow away from the driveway so you can get your car out and make the treacherous drive to work – and do it on time. That makes you want to speed up to get the shoveling done faster, all the while dealing with the worry about being late.

Just how much stress does it put on your heart? Shoveling snow is the equivalent of running a sprint on a treadmill[1]. Unless you are in great physical shape, that’s pretty hard to do!

Fitness Level and Other Risk Factors Matter Too

If physical exertion is rare for you, shoveling snow is not a good idea, no matter the age. But even if you’re accustomed to regular exercise, shoveling snow can be much more intense than what you’re used to engaging in. That can lead to a risk of serious consequences. In fact, the risks associated with shoveling heavy snowfall are elevated in men regardless of age.

A study in the journal Circulation found that 85% of adults in the United States age 50 and older have underlying coronary artery disease. Given that sobering fact, experts recommend that those who are 45 or older should not shovel snow[2]. This rule stands even if you are in good health.

Of course, if you have underlying medical conditions, shoveling snow is even more dangerous for you. It’s not a good idea to pick up that shovel if you have a history of cardiovascular disease, vascular disease, respiratory ailments, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, or smoking. That’s just about all of the senior and elderly population – the National Council on Aging reports that 95% of seniors have at least one chronic condition, and nearly 80% have at least two.

And there are risks with shoveling snow that go beyond heart attacks. Soft tissue injuries are common, as are lower-back injuries from lifting and moving all that heavy snow[3].

While the worries about a cardiac event are enough reason to consider medical alert technology, having a personal emergency response system can provide peace of mind if you do get injured in some other way while shoveling snow or during any other activity. That’s especially true if you get a medical alert system with fall detection, as slips and falls are quite common when you’re battling snow and ice. Fall detection technology can alert a 24/7 monitoring center the moment it senses a fall, getting someone to help you right away, without your even having to push the SOS button.

The Warning Signs of a Heart Attack

The warning signs of a heart attack don’t often appear like they do in the movies. Though it can happen that a sudden chest pain brings you to your knees, a heart attack usually shows more gradual symptoms. The most common include:

·         Chest discomfort, which might include pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain. The chest discomfort lasts for more than a few minutes.

·         Discomfort or pain in the arms, back, neck, jaw, or even your stomach

·         Shortness of breath

·         Feeling weak or unusually tired

·         Feeling lightheaded

·         Nausea

·         Breaking out in a sweat for no apparent reason

If you feel any of these symptoms, it’s time to get help right away. You might think that your cell phone will do the trick, but consider that you’ll have to find it, dial 911, and then tell them your location. Those things sound easy but when you’re suffering a heart attack, fear and panic means you might not be able to think clearly at all. A wearable medical alert device with GPS capability is a better option, as it allows you to summon immediate help with one simple motion – just press the button. If you are having trouble explaining where you are, the GPS function helps eliminate that worry.

If you feel the symptoms of a heart attack, never hesitate to press that button. When you have a cardiac event of any kind, seconds can mean the difference between life and death.

Sometimes, there are no symptoms before a heart attack. The physical exertion of shoveling snow can be enough to lead to a sudden, catastrophic event. For one in four adults with underlying coronary artery disease, the first, last, and only symptom is sudden cardiac death[4].

How to Clear Snow Safely

The safest course of action is for seniors and elderly adults to pay someone to plow or shovel for them. If someone must clear snow from their property, here are some tips, according to experts[5] and the National Safety Council:

·         Use a snowblower. These machines might still require some physical exertion, but certainly much less than shoveling does. In fact, studies have found that healthy young men shoveling snow hit an average heart rate of 170 beats per minute, while those handling a snowblower hit 120 beats per minute.

·         Don’t shovel after eating. Don’t divert your body’s blood flow to digestion. Though it might seem that having a hearty meal before shoveling is a good idea, it’s not – save the comfort food for when you come back inside from the cold.

·         Avoid certain substances. Alcohol, caffeine, cigarettes, and marijuana can increase your heart rate and blood pressure. Avoid them before and during the physical stress of shoveling snow.

·         Stretch well before starting. This is a serious physical endeavor, so treat it like one. You wouldn’t go on a run without stretching your muscles first! Take the time to stretch well and warm up before you go outside.

·         Take care of your back. Look for a shovel with an ergonomic handle that uses less energy, and remember proper lifting techniques, which include bending your knees and lifting with your legs. Wearing a back brace might be a great idea.

·         Dress for warmth. A heavy coat, hat, and gloves are always a great idea. Wearing a light scarf over your mouth and nose can help warm the air you breathe in.

·         Push the snow instead of lifting it. Lifting the snow is very hard on your body, but pushing it is much less so. Plan on working only with light, fluffy snow – compacted snow is difficult to manage. If you do lift snow, use a small shovel or fill a larger one only halfway.

·         Take plenty of breaks. Frequent breaks can help ensure that you don’t overexert yourself. Take a break anytime you feel as though you need one.

It’s a great idea for seniors to wear an in-home or mobile medical alert pendant all year long, not just in the wintertime.

If you do shovel snow, remember not to push yourself too hard. Clearing out that sidewalk or driveway is not worth compromising your good health! Alert1 wishes you a safe and healthy winter!