Christmas Eve is often a time to spend getting together with family, cooking a nice meal and listening for the clop, clop of Santa’s reindeer on the roof. But the normally cheerful occasion has a darker secret — the greatest heart attack risk of the year.
That’s according to a new study published in the British Medical Journal on Wednesday, which found that a person’s risk of heart attack spikes during most holidays and peaks at around 10 p.m on Christmas Eve.
“The peak is very pronounced exactly on Christmas Eve and the following two days, so, I think it is something specific for the way we celebrate these holidays,” said Lund University cardiologist David Erlinge, according to the Telegraph.
The researchers analyzed a massive trove of data in the study: the details of more than 280,000 heart attacks in Sweden over 16 years.
“It’s a big study, not a sample,” Lund said, according to the New York Times. “Every heart attack for 16 years in the whole country is in it. It’s reality.”
They found a few patterns about when heart attacks were more likely. There was a slightly higher risk before 8 a.m., and more generally on Mondays. There was a higher risk on New Year’s Day and the midsummer holidays, and the researchers said previous research showed some increased risks surrounding major sporting events and during Islamic holidays in certain regions.
But they found the greatest risk by far was on Christmas Eve, where the chances of having a heart attack shot up by 37 percent. The risk was especially great for those with diabetes or a history of heart disease.
But what causes that big jump?
The scientists believe Christmas Eve (and other holidays) are times when people experience emotional stress, and that likely affects heart health — although they are only speculating.
“We do not know for sure but emotional distress with acute experience of anger, anxiety, sadness, grief, and stress increases the risk of a heart attack. Excessive food intake, alcohol, long distance traveling may also increase the risk,” Erlinge said, according to the Telegraph. “People could avoid unnecessary stress, take care of elderly relatives with risk of heart problems and avoid excessive eating and drinking.”
The holidays have been under the microscope for their effects on health and safety before.
A persistent rumor says that suicides tend to increase around the winter holidays, but The Atlantic reported in 2015 that there was no evidence for that. In fact, it was often the opposite: suicides tended to increase during the spring and summer.