The recent deaths of well-loved celebrities such as George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds have many people noticing a familiar holiday trend that research studies have shown is true — death rates spike during the holiday season between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Studies have long documented the spike in deaths around the holidays, and have found that death rates go up with all of the most common types of natural causes (which account for about 93 percent of deaths in the United States).
In fact, you are more likely to die on Christmas Day than on any other day of the year, according to Medical Daily.
The five most common causes of death all spike in the time around Christmas and up to New Year’s Day: cardiac disease, respiratory diseases, endocrine/metabolic problems, digestive diseases and cancer, according to a 2010 study. Researchers found that these spikes around the holidays occurred in all demographics except children and that people are more likely to die on Christmas Day, the day after Christmas, and New Year’s Day than any other days of the year.
“In the two weeks starting with Christmas, there is an excess of 42,325 deaths from natural causes above and beyond the normal winter increase. Christmas and New Year appear to be risk factors for deaths from many diseases.”
Scientists have come up with many theories to explain the spike in death rates around the holidays over the years. Some theories have included understaffed hospitals during the Christmas season, holiday-related stress, an increase in cold-weather related illnesses like colds and flus, and an unwillingness to bother relatives for a trip to the hospital during the holidays, among others.
It may not be that easy to explain why death rates spike during the holidays, though. Researchers have found that Alzheimer’s patients who are not aware of their surroundings or the time of year also have increased death rates around Christmas, too, meaning that stress may not play as big of a role as was previously thought. Recent studies have found ways to debunk other popular theories, too.
And while many people have argued over the years that the higher rate of death from heart disease during the time around Christmas and New Year’s Day is because colds and the flu are more common in winter months, recent research has debunked that, too. Researchers decided to take the weather factor out of the equation by studying death rates in New Zealand where those holidays take place during their summer months and still found higher death rates around Christmas, according to Time.
Scientists at the University of Melbourne looked at 25 years of mortality data for New Zealand to see what sort of correlation there was between death rates from heart disease during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays during their summer months.
To their surprise, they found that there was still a correlation.
The researchers found that even when Christmas occurs during warmer weather, deaths were about 4 percent higher during the holiday season than the average for the rest of the year. They also found that the average age of death around the holidays is slightly younger than that for the rest of the year. They theorized that the holidays themselves might be risk factors for death, regardless of winter weather or health risks associated with winter holidays like increased rates of colds and the flu.
Stress may still play a factor in why death rates are higher during the holidays since people tend to have additional financial worries around the holidays and also may have stress related to family and social obligations. This stress can aggravate health conditions such as high blood pressure.
Foods also tend to be richer and people indulge in more fatty foods and alcohol, which can exacerbate health problems.
Scientists also point to less obvious factors that could put other people at higher risk during the holidays. For instance, many people travel during the Christmas season and are less likely to seek out medical care for health problems that come up if they are away from home. Experts have also theorized that people who are already ill may hang on for a little bit longer in order to see family and loved ones one more time during the holiday season.
One theory may hold a little bit of weight, though. A 2012 study found that hospitals do tend to be understaffed during the holidays, and less experienced medical staff tend to work over the holidays. Researchers found that “patients admitted as medical emergencies on public holidays were 48 percent more likely to die within seven days and 27 percent more likely to do so within 30 days.”
Researchers have also found that more people withheld their injury or illness from loved ones during the Christmas season, not wanting to put a damper on their family’s holiday spirit.
Despite long-held beliefs, death rates from suicide do not spike during the holidays, however. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that it is a myth that suicides go up during the Christmas season, and that myth “might ultimately hamper prevention efforts.”
CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reports that the suicide rate is, in fact, the lowest in December. Suicide rates are highest in spring and fall, they say.
[Featured Image by Sergio TB/Shutterstock]