It's the most wonderful time of the year, but it's also one of the deadliest. Numerous studies have shown that deaths increase around the holidays, and according to a study from the American Heart Association, the weeks between Christmas and the new year are the worst offenders. Apparently, heart-related deaths spike during the Christmas holiday period between December 25 and January 7, and as much as we all hate the freezing, slushy wasteland that the world becomes during the winter, the increase has nothing to do with the miserable winter weather.
Prior research has shown that deaths increase around the holidays, but researchers wanted to distinguish between the effect of winter and the effect of the holidays themselves. To separate these factors, they analyzed mortality trends in New Zealand, where the holidays fall during the summer rather than the winter. In a paper published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, they describe their findings, and sure enough, researchers found evidence for what they called the "Christmas holiday effect."
Between 1988 and 2013, a total of 738,409 people died, 197,109 of which were related to heart problems. In the two weeks following Christmas, the average age of cardiac death was 76.8 rather than 77.1 years old. Researchers also found a 4.2 percent increase in heart-related deaths occurring outside a hospital during that time period.
"Cardiac mortality is elevated during the Christmas holiday period relative to surrounding time periods," researchers concluded. They added that these findings line up with a 2004 study in the United States, which found that cardiac deaths rise by nearly five percent between Christmas Day and the new year. In the United States, however, the holidays line up with flu season and the coldest time of the year, so it's hard to tease apart the factors causing holiday deaths in North America. Thanks to the New Zealand study, there's evidence that the spike in holiday deaths isn't a coincidence.
According to researchers, there are a few possible explanations for this effect. For one thing, no matter how much you love your family, the holidays are an emotional, stressful time of year. For another, they're often accompanied by changes in diet — all those Starbucks holiday drinks aren't exactly good for you — as well as an increase in alcohol consumption. (Alcohol, by the way, has been identified as a risk factor for atrial fibrillation, or irregular heartbeat.) Furthermore, people often travel during the holidays, leaving less staff to work in medical facilities, and those who are sick might put off seeing the doctor until they're home again.
Study author Josh Knight offered a particularly bittersweet possibility. "The ability of individuals to modify their date of death based on dates of significance has been both confirmed and refuted in other studies, [but] it remains a possible explanation for this holiday effect," he said, according to Science Daily. In other words, some terminally ill patients may hang on until after a day that's important to them.
There are still plenty of questions left to research, particularly when it comes to identifying the causes of the spike in deaths around the holidays. In the meantime, it's a reminder to appreciate your loved ones, even if they did fight you for the last of the figgy pudding.