It may not be just the weather that causes “Christmas coronaries” and “Happy New Year heart attacks.” The odds a death that happens in a given year will happen in January are 1 in 10.89, higher than any other month.
Summer is safer even where winter is warm. “All morticians take their vacations in August,” says Jerry Marek of Groman Mortuary in Los Angeles, California. The odds of an August death are a mild 1 in 12.73.
Even in Los Angeles, the death rate starts rising around Thanksgiving, climbs through Christmas, and peaks on New Year’s Day. Why the holiday rush? Sure winter is the flu season, and a cold is rough on heart conditions; but it’s also possible that Christmas will kill you.
Two spikes in mortality from natural causes happened almost every year from 1973 to 2001: one on December 25 and the other on January 1. Five percent more people die natural deaths on the holidays. Is it the eggnog, the relatives, all the extra alcohol? Smoke from the Yule log? “I don’t know what it is,” Marek offers, “but it just happens that way.”
Some scientists who have documented this trend suggest an increase in fatal procrastination: people simply aren’t going to the hospital when they should. Other studies have suggested that people might be sending the Grim Reaper packing until after they can experience something they’ve been looking forward to, such as celebrating birthdays with the family or meeting the new grandkids.
However, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2004 claims this isn’t true, at least not for cancer patients. It concluded, “We found no evidence, in contrast to previous studies, that cancer patients are able to postpone their deaths to survive significant religious, social, or personal events.”
But there is something that may allow people to cheat death, at least for one day.
On the day before Sweden abolished the inheritance tax in 2005, mortality fell by 17%. Maybe the only thing more powerful than death is taxes.