Festivities should come with a health warning, says expert
It may be the most wonderful time of the year, but it’s also the most lethal, with Christmas Day worst of all. A leading testing expert discusses the health issues behind some famous Christmas celebrity deaths and reveals how we can protect ourselves from festive excesses.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas but, as we set about organising food, presents and parties, we should also be planning how to survive the season, says a leading health testing expert.
Dr Avinash Hari Narayanan (MBChB), Clinical Lead at London Medical Laboratory, says: ‘Christmas is widely considered to be a joyful and relaxing time, but for many it’s anything but. There are no glad tidings from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which says December and January are the most common months of death in the UK.
‘Concerningly, the highest concentration of cardiac-related deaths is during Christmas time. Research published in the US journal “Circulation” shows that 4% more people die of heart problems during the Christmas holiday compared to even the mid-winter average. Most fatal of all is Christmas Day. It has the highest number of cardiac deaths that occur rapidly after presentation of a medical problem. In second and third place are 26 December and New Year’s Day.
Just how dangerous Christmas Day can prove to be is highlighted by the number of famous people associated with Christmas who, in fact, died on Christmas Day:
- George Michael, singer of the hit “Last Christmas”, reportedly died from a diseased heart (dilated cardiomyopathy with myocarditis and a fatty liver) on Christmas Day, 2016.
- Dean Martin, singer of Christmas favourites such as “Silver Bells” and “But Baby it’s Cold Outside”, died of acute respiratory failure on Christmas Day, 1995.
- Charlie Chaplin, star of “The Kid”, which makes many people’s Christmas favourite films list, died in his sleep on Christmas Day, 1977, following a stroke.
- James Brown, who recorded “James Brown sings Christmas Songs” and “A Soulful Christmas”, died of congestive heart failure on Christmas Day, 2006.
Notably, all these deaths are linked to heart or respiratory issues. Why can Christmas be so dangerous? Research from the University of Melbourne reveals an increase in heart attacks around the festive period may be because accessing hospitals is more difficult. The UK’s winter peak in deaths from cardiovascular disease is likely to be linked to high cholesterol and high blood pressure; both are known to climb around the holiday season. Rich foods, excess alcohol and the stress of meeting relatives we’ve been avoiding all year can be a lethal combination.
‘Another worry is the cost of the presents, parties, clothes, food and booze. As household costs soar, that will be a particular issue this year. A ground-breaking 2017 study published in “The Lancet” revealed a potential cause for the link between stress and heart problems. It tested activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with stress, and discovered that those people with the most activity in the amygdala had the highest risk of developing heart disease over a follow-up lasting nearly four years.
‘Finally, it’s perhaps not generally known that a bad case of flu can also have an impact on our heart. There is a known link between the flu virus and cardiovascular disease. The flu virus affects inflammatory and blood-clotting pathways. This can cause fatty deposits on the artery walls (plaques) to break loose, leading to coronary artery blockage – the main cause of heart attacks. Together with Covid-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), we are far more likely to catch flu during the winter. Many Christmas deaths in the UK are registered in early January because of the holiday shutdown. In January 2023, the leading registered cause of excess death in England was influenza or pneumonia, at 1,802 excess deaths (59.2% above average).
‘Knowing all these issues, what preventative actions can we take to get us through Christmas? Obviously, going easy on fatty foods and alcohol are the most significant steps. In terms of reducing stress, the encouraging takeaway from the “Lancet” study is that stress reduction techniques, such as exercise and deep breathing, might calm the mechanism that converts stress to heart attacks and strokes.
‘Having access to information about your health is always beneficial, especially at a time when we are all tempted to eat fattier and richer foods than normal. With GP surgeries extremely busy at this time of year, people worried about their cholesterol levels do have alternatives. The most common option is a finger-prick cholesterol blood test, which can be taken at home or at many local community pharmacies.
‘London Medical Laboratory’s revolutionary and convenient home finger-prick Cholesterol Profile test measures total cholesterol, LDL “bad cholesterol”, HDL “good” cholesterol, non-HDL (a newly adopted, more accurate, measure) and other key markers. It can be taken at home through the post, or at one of the many drop-in clinics that offer these tests across London and nationwide in over 95 selected pharmacies and health stores. For full details, see: https://www.londonmedicallaboratory.com/product/cholesterol-profile