You may have heard about it. Perhaps you wrote it off as some kind of urban legend. But the startling truth is that research from the last decade indicates that there is an increased risk of mortality during the holidays, with a number of studies showing there are more deaths on Christmas, Boxing Day and New Year's Day than on any other days of the year. Other studies warn that the holiday risk extends up to a full week past New Year.
Separate the holiday effect from winter overall, and researchers tell us that death from natural causes climbs 5 per cent over any other time. This is true across a whole host of different illnesses, including respiratory diseases, cancer, digestive diseases and metabolic diseases. It is also true across all ages, except children.
So, what is it about the holidays that correlates to such an ominous trend? While studies haven't fully isolated the reasons for this holiday surge in mortality, researchers have made some headway on possible explanations.
When it comes to the seasonal variation, research has focused on cardiac-related deaths in particular. It was once presumed that the seasonal increase in cardiac-related deaths could be attributed to colder temperatures, when blood vessels are more restricted and people are more prone to colds and flu, which both increase cardiac risk. But a recent study released by the University of Melbourne challenges those theories.
When researchers investigated the death rates from heart disease in New Zealand, where the Christmas holiday occurs during their summer season, they discovered a mortality increase of 4 per cent. Cardiac-related deaths still surged despite the balmy weather, suggesting the link may be due to other factors, potentially related to the holiday itself.
Keeping a close eye on stress and making healthy lifestyle decisions may be, at the very least, a wise preventative measure.
Heightened holiday stress seems to be a natural culprit; strenuous schedules, family pressures, financial strain, excessive alcohol consumption, rich food and travel can all place an extra burden on our health. In fact, the "most wonderful time of the year" is a time of major stress for most. According to a 2015 survey released by Healthline, 62 per cent of respondents perceived that their stress spiked to "very or somewhat" elevated levels throughout the holidays. The most common factor noted was financial strain, with poor diet, less exercise and pressure to choose the right gift following close behind.
The link between holiday stress and an increased risk of mortality is compelling; however, we currently have no nationwide measures to test these factors. There is also no documented link between acute stress and death from such a wide range of diseases. So, while studies remain inconclusive when it comes to holiday stress and mortality, keeping a close eye on stress and making healthy lifestyle decisions may be, at the very least, a wise preventative measure.
Some researchers believe access to medical treatment and displacement of death are more likely explanations when it comes to increased holiday mortality. Imagine that through the power of our mind we may hold some intentional control over our end of life process. The displacement of death theory argues that through sheer will, people may speed up or slow down their death based on their desire to experience the holiday and the associated family connection.
While research supporting the phenomenon of brief postponement of death until after symbolically meaningful occasions suggests a convincing relationship between mind and body, there is still much to learn about the mechanisms behind it.
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Perhaps the most well argued factor when it comes to holiday deaths is related to health care. With fewer medical facilities open, less staff at hospitals and patients traveling to locations where they may not be familiar with how to access medical services, it's possible patients aren't getting the urgent care they need.
As emergency department crowding has increased over time, so too has the size of the holiday effect, making this theory one of the most plausible. The key message here: those at risk should know where the closest emergency department is and seek medical help at the earliest sign of symptoms.
Worrying about ruining a holiday dinner simply isn't worth taking a gamble with your well-being. Enjoy the holidays, of course but just remember to be mindful of your health.
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