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Heart Attack Deaths Spike During the Holidays

But only a little bit. Happy New Year!

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images)

With all the travel, crazy uncles, food and drink, and reduced hospital staff, it’s not terribly surprising that people are about 5 percent more likely to die over the holidays than at any other point in the year. What’s a little more surprising is that harsh winter weather doesn’t appear to contribute, according to a new study that shows the same holiday bump in New Zealand, where it’s now summer.

Medical researchers aren’t sure exactly what causes the Merry Christmas Coronary and the Happy New Year Heart Attack, as one commentator put it, but there have been some signs that bad weather wasn’t a factor for some time. A 1999 study in Los Angeles, where winters are relatively mild, found there was still a bump in cardiac deaths around the holidays.

On the other hand, there have been few studies of the effect outside the United States, and none in the Southern Hemisphere, Josh Knight and his colleagues at the University of Melbourne write in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Such a study could help epidemiologists better understand the holiday heart attack nexus, so Knight and his team set out to do just that.

The team began by collecting 26 years of “daily mortality data”—basically, what killed people on any given day between 1988 and 2013—from the New Zealand Ministry of Health. Then, for every day of the year, they estimated a background mortality rate by computing the average number of deaths per day in a six-week window centered on the day of interest. Finally, the researchers computed the excess number of deaths—the actual number of deaths on a given day minus the background rate.

Based on that analysis, the team estimates there’s a 4.2 percent increase in the number of cardiac, or heart attack-related, deaths that took place outside a hospital between Christmas and January 7th of the following year. That adds up to about one extra death per million New Zealanders during the two weeks after Christmas, or about four extra deaths per year—not a huge effect, but a noticeable one, and one not easily attributable to weather or weather-related phenomena, such as increased pollution from heaters in use during the winter.

So what might cause the spike in holiday heart attacks? It’s possible that changes in diet and alcohol consumption and emotional stress contribute. It’s also possible that holiday travel away from major medical centers leads people to inappropriately delay treatment. A final, rather odd possibility the team cites: Perhaps people are managing to delay their own deaths, essentially hanging in until Christmas and New Year’s before shuffling off their mortal coils.