It’s the most wonderful time of the year. But according to the Center for Disease Control, it’s also the deadliest.
During Christmas, New Year’s, and the surrounding holiday season, there is an unusual spike in the number of deaths. A CDC study found that people have a greater chance of dying on Christmas or New Year’s Eve than on any other day of the year.
Studying the Spike
Professor David Phillips is leading the research on holidays and the increase in deaths. His recent study analyzed death certificates over a 25-year period that started in 1979 and ended in 2004 and focused on the days between December 25th and January 7th.
Phillips and his researchers found that out of all five of the most common diseases that cause death — circulatory problems, respiratory diseases, endocrine/nutritional/metabolic problems, digestive diseases, and cancer — all of them peaked on or around Christmas.
As reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the study found that “42,325 more people died of natural causes — which make up about 93 percent of all deaths — during the two-week Christmas/New Year holiday period than would normally be expected, given the typical winter increase in deaths. There also were increases in every major disease group of 1 percent to 10 percent and in every demographic group of 3 percent to 9 percent.”
To add to the odd phenomena, there have been other studies that have found that unnatural causes of death — like homicide or car accidents — also surge around the holiday season. And, contrary to popular belief, suicide is one cause of death that doesn’t rise during the holiday season. In fact, the CDC found suicide rates are lowest in the month of December.
Reasons Behind the Spike
So, what’s causing the spike of holiday deaths — specifically in natural deaths? The cold weather? Seasonal illnesses like the flu? Excessive holiday eating and drinking leading to cardiac problems? All that was disproven by the study.
What about stress and sadness?
The holidays are ranked high as one of the most stressful times of the year. Could holiday stress be the culprit? The study doesn’t rule it out, but Phillips and his team aren’t ready to accept it as the sole reason. According to a CNN Health Report, “Phillips and his team looked at the number of deaths among the Alzheimer’s population, theorizing they may be less aware of the holidays and the stress it can trigger.” But they found that deaths in Alzheimer patients spiked too. There’s also a lack of evidence to verify stress as a cause, per the study’s findings.
The answer could be a simple one. The researchers think that it comes down to access to healthcare. The study concludes with two main theories:
- As medical professionals take time off for the holidays, hospitals and emergency departments get crowded. The overcrowding can cause stress on the facility and increase the response time needed for urgent care.
- Some patients may prefer to stay at home with family and friends to celebrate the holidays. These patients might ignore potentially serious symptoms and avoid treatment altogether.
Phillips hopes his study can shed light on the “holiday effect” and help families and hospitals work to bring down the surge in deaths that occur during the season. Then, hopefully, it can finally get back to being the most wonderful time of the year.