Answer Man

Answer Man: Can people force death to take a holiday?

Q. I noticed in your paper that there was a sharp increase in the number of obituaries after Christmas. That made me wonder: I know some say that dying people sometimes make it through Christmas, birthdays, etc., through sheer willpower because they want to celebrate one last major occasion with their families. But is there any evidence for this?

— D.W., of Fairview Heights

A. It’s one of those heartwarming stories that often make headlines and invariably evoke a tear from those who hear them.

A dear, sweet elderly lady or a pillar of his community makes it through her or his 100th birthday only to die a day or two later. Why, many historians say even William Shakespeare saw at least the dawn of his 52nd birthday back on April 23, 1616, before drawing his last breath.

Had they willed themselves to keep going for the big occasion? With everything science has learned about the human body, you could make a case for such an explanation. You’re so eager to spend one last Christmas, anniversary or whatever with your family that your brain might spark the secretion of certain hormones that help keep you alive for a few more hours. Then, after the candles are blown out and the presents unwrapped, the production stops and the body gives up the ghost.

You can find medical professionals who swear it happens. Even some studies have shown it might be true. One found that the death rates of Jewish men dropped just before Passover and the same seemed to hold true for Chinese women before the Mid-Autumn (or Harvest Moon) Festival.

But these studies were relatively tiny with protocols difficult to replicate. So, overall, I have bad news: In studies that involve huge numbers of people, death never took a holiday. In fact, according to one, you have a greater chance of dying on Christmas than any other day of the year for reasons the scientists could not explain.

One of the best was a 2004 study in which Donn Young at the Ohio State University Cancer Center studied the records of 300,000 cancer patients. He found no statistically significant increase in mortality after Christmas as you might expect if patients were waiting to see Santa one last time. The same was true for Thanksgiving and birthdays, according to the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Then, in 2010, three researchers at the University of California stepped it up a notch by analyzing every U.S. death certificate from 1979 to 2004. They found more people died on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and the rest of the holiday season than any other time of year.

Christmas Day saw a 6 percent spike in patients ruled dead on arrival at hospitals. Overall, the chances of dying were found to increase 3 percent to 9 percent during the Christmas season depending on demographic group and 1 percent to 10 percent depending on cause of death.

The researchers, however, discounted the will-to-live theory.

“If that were the case, you’d expect not only a peak on the holiday, but a compensatory drop in deaths before the holiday,” David Phillips told the National Post in Toronto when the study was published in the journal Social Science and Medicine. “No such drop is evident.”

They also ruled out holiday stress, emergency room overcrowding, winter travel, cold weather and substance abuse.

“For now, the message is to pay attention to your health and to your health resources,” said Phillips, who, in another study, did associate a spike in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome cases on New Year’s Day with the occasion’s usual increase of alcohol consumption.

If you want more bad news, the University of Zurich, Switzerland, is happy to comply. In studying more than 2 million people over a 40-year period, researchers there found that people over 60 were 14 percent more likely to die on their birthdays than any other day, most often by heart attack and stroke, but cancer as well.

Some speculate that our willingness to believe in the will-to-live phenomenon hangs on because of people’s selective attention. We remember the cases of people who live through a milestone but ignore all the times it doesn’t happen. In other words, we remember Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series but quickly forget all the pitchers who missed the feat by, say, a couple of walks or a bloop single.

So how can you keep the Grim Reaper at Bay a little longer? A University of Pittsburgh study came up with an interesting finding: As you might expect, regular exercise can add three to five years but regular church attendance was found to add 1.8 to 3.1 years, too.

Today’s trivia

President Barack Obama’s recent proposal to allow many students to attend community colleges for free has drawn much discussion. Which community college was the first in the United States?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: From 1936 to 1958, Carl Stalling wrote the musical scores to hundreds of the best Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons for Warner Bros. — an average of one a week for 22 years. Working with such famed animators as Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, he produced the Looney Tunes style of rapid musical cues punctuated with sound effects along with the constant use of the musical pun. Born in 1891, Stalling grew up in Lexington, Mo., and, in the early 1900s was the theater organist for a short time at the St. Louis Theatre, which is now Powell Hall, home of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

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