Deaths Peak During Holiday Season, Study Shows

Delays in Seeking Medical Care May Increase Heart Attack Risks

From the WebMD Archives

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.

Why Death Rates Peak During the Holidays

Researchers say several factors may explain the higher-than-normal number of heart-related deaths during the holiday season. For example, changes in diet and alcohol use, higher stress levels, and winter-related increases in respiratory diseases and indoor air pollution all may play a role.

These factors have been studied before, but researchers say their results suggest other factors may also be responsible.

"Of all the things we considered that might elicit the increase in holiday deaths from natural causes, including changes in diet and alcohol consumption and emotional stress, only two explanations were consistent with our data," says Phillips. "One possibility is that sick people tend to delay seeking medical care during the holidays. Another is that there are often changes in medical staff during the holidays and, as a result, the quality of care might be compromised."

To avoid becoming part of this deadly holiday trend, Alice Jacobs, MD, president of the American Heart Association, recommends these tips to help keep your heart healthy during the holiday season:

  • Don't skip regular appointments because of the holidays. Reschedule if you need to.
  • Stick to your healthy habits through the holidays, and help your family do the same.
  • Be sure you have enough of your usual medications to allow for holiday business/pharmacy closings and travel.
  • Check out the medical facilities where you'll be traveling.
  • Ask your doctor who you could see if you need a doctor away from home.
  • If you have symptoms, don't ignore them.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Phillips, D. Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, Dec. 14, 2004; vol 110. News release, American Heart Association.
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