The eggnog, the awful relatives, the slothfulnessthere are plenty of reasons to think mortality from heart disease might go up around the holidays. A group of researchers with a little extra time on their hands checked it out.
What the researchers wanted to know: Is there a holiday peak in heart disease deaths?
What they did: They used the National Center for Health Statistics' database of U.S. death certificates to look at deaths for most years from 1973 to 2001. They paid particular attention to the holiday season, which was defined as December 25 to January 7. (They extended it through the first week of January in case there was some holiday effect that took a while to appear.) Heart disease was their main focus, but they looked at other causes of death, too. They were looking for any peaks around the holidays that weren't part of the usual increase in deaths in winter.
What they found: Yep, the researchers found the same pattern: a spike in cardiac deathsand deaths from all diseasesaround Christmas and another around New Year's. The researchers considered 10 possible reasons for this, from weather to emotional stress, most of which they dismiss through various clever ways of looking at the data (for example: people with Alzheimer's probably don't know it's Christmas, so they wouldn't necessarily be stressed at the holidays, but the same pattern of holiday-time cardiac death was seen for people with Alzheimer's). The researchers figure the most likely reason is that people delay getting medical care during the holidays.
What the study means to you: Even if it's New Year's Eve and you're having a rockin' time, chest pain is chest pain and should be given the same attention as at any other time.
Caveats: The evidence for and against the various possible causes isn't uniformly strong. More research would be needed to figure out what causes the peaks in mortality.
Find out more: The American Heart Association offers "Tips for a Heart-Healthy Holiday Season."
Read the article: Phillips, D. P., et al. "Cardiac Mortality Is Higher Around Christmas and New Year's Than at Any Other Time: The Holidays as a Risk Factor for Death." Circulation. Published online Dec. 13, 2004.
Abstract online: http://circ.ahajournals.org