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Deaths Peak During Holiday Season, Study Shows

Delays in Seeking Medical Care May Increase Heart Attack Risks

WebMD Health News

Dec. 13, 2004 - The holiday season may be hazardous to your health, especially your heart, according to a new study that shows death rates peak during Christmas and New Year's.

Researchers found that more heart-related deaths occurred on Dec. 25 than on any other day of the year among people not already in the hospital. The second largest number of deaths was on the day after Christmas, and the third highest peak occurred on New Year's Day.

They call the phenomenon the "Merry Christmas Coronary" and "Happy New Year Heart Attack." But similar spikes in death rates were also found for non-heart-related deaths during the holiday season.

"We found that there is a general tendency for cardiac and non-cardiac deaths to peak during the winter, but above and beyond this seasonal increase, there are additional increases in cardiac and non-cardiac deaths around Christmas and New Year's," says researcher David P. Phillips, PhD, professor in the department of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, in a news release.

Although too much eggnog and celebrating during the holidays may play a role in increasing the risk of heart attack and other causes of death, researchers say people may also delay seeking medical care, which could be a potentially deadly mistake.

Holiday Heart Hazards

In the study, which appears in the Dec. 14 issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers examined records for 53 million deaths from natural causes over a 26-year period (1973-2001), excluding suicides, homicides, and accidents.

They compared the number of deaths reported from Dec. 25 to Jan. 7 with the number of deaths that would have normally been expected at that time of year.

They found that death rates from heart attacks and stroke as well as non-heart-related causes spiked during the holiday season and the percentage of holiday deaths grew over time.

For example, in the last three years studied (1998-2001), holiday death rates were 4.4% above what would have been expected during the winter months. But in the first three years of the study (1973-1975), holiday death rates were only 0.95% higher than expected.

Phillips says the holiday death rate spikes were particularly striking among deaths that occurred in people who were dead on arrival (DOA), die in the emergency department, or die as outpatients.

Among this group, 4.65% percent more heart-related deaths and 4.99% more non-heart-related deaths occurred during the holiday period than would be expected during the winter months. For patients already in the hospital, the holiday effect on heart-related deaths was 1.6%.

For patients who survived past the emergency department to be hospitalized, there were no obvious spikes at Christmas and New Year's Day, although there was a general increase during the holiday period and just afterward.

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