Turkey leftovers are all but gone. Now the wheel turns toward Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanza, and New Year’s Day.
Whatever you’re celebrating, make it count. Because for many people, the holidays are about loss.
As an editor of obituaries, I can anecdotally confirm the findings of studies showing deaths spike during the holiday season. The “Merry Christmas Coronary” is a real phenomenon — it means there are statistically more heart-related deaths on Dec. 25 than any other day of the year among the unhospitalized. The so-called “Happy New Year Heart Attack” isn’t far behind.
Why? Some say many who are ill “hold on” via mind over matter to see family once again and to say goodbye.
But according to the American Heart Association, the holidays are a time of increased emotional stress, overindulgence in everything from fat to alcohol, and low health care staffing levels.
On top of that, it’s flu season, which puts a strain on the respiratory system. Cold weather can also lower resistance while increasing the body’s oxygen needs.
One study several years ago by the University of California at San Diego looked at more than 57 million death certificates from 1979 to 2004 and found the spike in holiday deaths is definitely not a myth. The numbers showed 42,325 more people died of natural causes during the two weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year’s than in a normal two-week period.
Remember Y2K? That was the shorthand given to New Year’s 2000, erroneously marked as the turn of the millennium, which would actually come Jan. 1, 2001. But enthusiasm for the date and “emotional stress from concern about terrorist attacks or the ‘Y2K millennium bug’” led to another anomalous spike in deaths that day, noted Los Angeles physician Robert Kloner in an editorial for the AHA.
He led a research group that published more findings on the Merry Christmas Coronary: “During a 12-year period, there were consistently more deaths from ischemic heart disease during the winter than there were during the summer. About one third more deaths from ischemic heart disease were recorded in December and January than from June through September in Los Angeles County.”
I’m no stranger to the phenomenon personally, so maybe I’m more prone to believe what the numbers show.
My grandmother, Lois Williams, died on Christmas Eve 2013 after years of health problems including stroke. I called her hospital room in Florida to say goodbye and never got the chance — within minutes she breathed her last and was gone.
With her passing, some of the glow of Christmas also was dimmed forever. No matter how much I look forward to sharing Christmas morning with my three children, that warmth will always be tempered by the cold of Grammy’s loss.
So what can we do? Nothing, really — except take a little extra care and be more free with those happy holiday wishes this season.
Many people will need them to help soothe the hurt when it’s at its worst.