Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Why January is the month you’re most likely to die: Factors like the chronic chill and genetics cause the year's highest death tolls

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What is it with deaths this January? Before we got halfway through the month, the world had lost a pantheon of cultural icons - musician David Bowie, actor Alan Rickman, and the DJ and Top Of The Pops presenter Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart.

These sad losses reflect a little known fact: that January is the peak time of the year for deaths. This is for a multitude of reasons - some quite straightforward, such as the cold weather, others more complex, such as our genes.

Quirks of the human psyche play a crucial part as well. January famously includes the ‘most depressing day of the year’ - the third Monday of the month - identified by Welsh psychologist Dr Cliff Arnall in 2005.

This was based on a formula said to weigh factors such as weather, debt, the time elapsed since Christmas and failed New Year’s resolutions. By applying a mathematical ‘sadness’ algorithm to these factors, yesterday was ‘Blue Monday’, as it’s come to be known.

Scientifically, this calculation may be bunkum, but the fact that so many are willing to believe it indicates the idea has strong emotional traction. Indeed, the Samaritans says that January is a peak time for calls from people feeling emotionally distressed and desperate.

Psychologists have a name for this potentially lethal post-festive plummet in morale: the ‘broken promise effect’.

People in low mood in the early winter hang on to the hope that Christmas and New Year will bring better things.

December sees a drop in the suicide rate, which experts call the ‘postponing effect’; the rate ‘rebounds’ in January, with an above average rise.

Another factor may be that people who are seriously ill often hang on to life at Christmas and New Year, for a final chance to see loved ones and enjoy the emotional warmth of the season.

Indeed, a study in 1973 by sociologists at the State University of New York found a similar peak in survival rates around people’s birthdays.

It also reported that seriously ill Jewish people may ‘postpone’ their deaths until after important religious dates such as Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement.The report, published in the American Social Review, examined the death dates of more than 1,300 people. 

The cold weather, too, is an obvious factor - and last year proved to be particularly grim. In January 2015, the death rate peaked at more than 30 per cent above the average for that month over the previous ten years.

More than 12,500 more people passed away in those four weeks than usual. Public Health England (PHE) put it down to the weather, with the ‘statistically significant excess’ in deaths coinciding, it said, with serious cold snaps.

The sad fact is that Britain is comparatively very poor at protecting itself against the killer chill. 

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal countries in Scandinavia and northern Europe that endure bitterly cold winters have lower excess winter mortality than Britain.

A 2013 ONS report noted that people in those countries take better precautions against the cold, and their homes are better insulated. 

Perhaps surprisingly, flu is not the great January killer. Most of the deaths are linked to respiratory and circulatory diseases brought on by the body being severely stressed by chronic chill.

As Tim Ellis, chief executive of the National Records of Scotland, explains: ‘Very few [of the additional deaths in winter] are caused by hypothermia and only a small proportion by influenza.

‘Most are from respiratory and circulatory diseases, such as pneumonia, coronary heart disease and stroke.’

There are also genetic reasons for such deaths.

In cold weather, our immune systems rev up to resist the bugs that thrive when people huddle together in stuffy rooms, shops, trains and buses. When our immune systems are highly active, they are also more likely to go awry.

But inflammation can be lethal. Chronic inflammation causes damage throughout the body and plays a significant role in heart disease, type 1 diabetes and arthritis.Our immune genes control our immune cells and trigger inflammation - the body’s way of fighting off infection by releasing chemicals that cause swelling as a defence against invaders.

‘We see a rise in new cases of type 1 diabetes in January,’ says John Todd, a professor of medical genetics at Cambridge University who studies seasonal gene changes. ‘Heart disease is also much worse in the winter months.’

Figures from the British Heart Foundation prove that there are significantly more deaths from coronary heart disease during January. Further- more, a 2012 study by Harvard university shows that levels of bad cholesterol and triglycerides (fats in the blood linked to heart disease) peak in January, and are lowest in summer.
The reason for this is not yet clear.

Once we have made it through January, though, we can all look forward to the happy months of July, August and September.

Across Britain, these have the lowest death rates, according to ONS figures between 1959 and 2012.
After that, the death rate begins to rise again in October, then begins a steep ascent to its winter heights at the start of November.

It seems that the English novelist Anthony Trollope had it right back in 1858, when he wrote in his novel, Dr Thorne: ‘Let no man boast himself that he has got through the perils of winter till at least the seventh of May.’

In the meantime, enjoy the rest of January. If you can.

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