More people have heart attacks during the holiday season compared to other times of the year, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Melbourne. They believe this may be due to more difficult access to hospitals, combined with emotional stress, an excess of alcohol, and a fatty diet.
Although previous U.S. research has already established a link between the holidays and heart attacks, the findings could be attributed to the season of winter itself, when mortality rates are already at their highest.
In order to differentiate between winter deaths and holiday deaths, the researchers analyzed data from patients in the southern hemisphere where the months of December and January are in the summer. The data included 25 years of records of heart attack deaths that occurred between Christmas day and the first week of January in New Zealand.
Indeed, the researchers found a 4.2 percent increase in heart-related deaths occurring out of the hospital during the Christmas period in New Zealand. The victims tended to be slightly younger as well. The average age of cardiac death was 76.2 years during the Christmas period compared with 77.1 years at other times of the year.
Lead author and researcher at the Centre for Health Policy at the University of Melbourne, Dr. Josh Knight, said by using data from a country where Christmas occurs in the height of summer, he was able to separate any “holiday effect” from the “winter effect.”
Knight said they still need to determine whether the holiday spike in cardiac deaths is due to restricted access to health care facilities and/or other risk factors such as emotional stress, changes in diet, and alcohol consumption.
He also suggested that patients might be holding back on seeking medical care during the holiday season.
“The Christmas holiday period is a common time for travel within New Zealand, with people frequently holidaying away from their main medical facilities,” he said. “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.”
Another possible explanation may have to do with terminally ill patients’ will to live and their ability to hold off death for a day that is important to them.
“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,” said Knight.
The findings are published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
Source: University of Melbourne