Statistics show an uptick in heart attacks on Christmas and during the holiday season in general. But why do these events take place so often during the holidays?
A paper published in 2004 in the Journal of the American Heart Association showed that in the United States, cardiac mortality reaches its peak in December and January. But there has been a lot of debate as to what really drives these events. For instance, Christmas celebrations often mean an increase in negative health habits – eating richer foods and drinking more alcohol, in specific. The holidays also mean additional stress brought about by Christmas preparations, as well as tighter schedules in general. Weather-related factors may play a part as well, due to frigid winter temperatures restricting blood vessels and making the heart work harder than usual.
As it turns out, winter weather has nothing to do with the higher rate of heart attacks during the Christmas season. The Huffington Post cited a new study posted in the Journal of the American Heart Association study, which used New Zealanders as a comparison point, due to their similarity in culture and the fact that Christmas coincides with their summertime.
Given the fact that Australia also celebrates an “upside-down Christmas” as a Southern Hemisphere country, a team of University of Melbourne researchers looked into whether New Zealanders experience similar spikes in heart attacks while celebrating the Christmas season, despite celebrating the holidays in the summer.
The researchers studied New Zealand mortality statistics over a 25-year span from 1988 to 2013, and tallied an “expected” death count per day of the year. They also took their model and compared it against the actual deaths per day over the Christmas holidays, or a range of dates from December 25 through January 7. And when it came to cardiac events, there was a 4 percent increase over those two weeks, translating to approximately four more deaths per year. Additionally, heart attack victims died at a younger age during the holiday season, dying at 76.2-years-old, as to 77.1-years-old if they died at any other time of the year.
According to lead author Josh Knight, other factors related to the uptick in cardiac deaths during the holiday season included a lack of access to proper medical assistance.
“The Christmas holiday period is a common time for travel within New Zealand, with people frequently holidaying away from their main medical facilities. This could contribute to delays in both seeking treatment, due to a lack of familiarity with nearby medical facilities, and due to geographic isolation from appropriate medical care in emergency situations.”
Knight was also quoted by the Daily Mail as saying that terminally-ill individuals may prefer to spend the holidays with their loved ones, thereby trying to hold off on dying for a little longer.
“The ability of individuals to modify their date of death, based on dates of significance, has been both confirmed and refuted in other studies, however it remains a possible explanation for this holiday effect.”
The Huffington Post added that this marked the third study where researchers tried to track heart attack deaths during Christmas season, and see why the rates are so high. Aside from the aforementioned studies on U.S. and New Zealand subjects, a team of British researchers wrote in 2005 that while there was no spike in death rates on Christmas day, there was one observed in the U.K. on New Year’s Day.
While the above theories mesh with earlier studies’ conclusions on why fatal heart attacks on or around Christmas Day are so common, the researchers believe that fatty foods, increased alcohol consumption, and stress are indeed potential factors, but more research may be needed to measure their impact.
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