A date with death: January is mortality peak
janeiro 15, 2007
CALGARY - If you're not feeling well this month, you might want to pay a visit to your doctor, as January has the distinction of being the seasonal peak of deaths for the year.
"It's fairly consistent. There's an increase in deaths in the winter months," said professor Frank Trovato, who studies demography and population at the University of Alberta.
He believes the January increase is due to many factors, including the harsh effects of cold weather and people unconsciously postponing death until after Christmas.
This pattern in seen both in the United States and Canada. Here, Statistics Canada has reviewed vital statistics from 1974 to 1994 and found that January is the apex of death.
It appears the trend has continued in more recent years. Across the country in 2004 (the most recent year that figures are available), an average of 621 people died every day. But in January, that rate jumped to 703 per day --higher than any other month.
But December is also another record month for deaths. In some recent years across Canada, December has seen more deaths than January.
Some people attribute this dark winter spate to the weather, the flu, seasonal stress or the will of a chronically ill person to live for a last Christmas with family. But no one is really sure.
The last major report on seasonal deaths from Statistics Canada presents some stark reasons.
"Deaths from pneumonia and influenza are highly seasonal, paralleling the elevated incidence and prevalence of these diseases in the winter months," said the 1997 report.
Cardiovascular disease deaths also peak in January, along with deaths from diabetes, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, and diseases of the urinary system. It is thought these chronic diseases cause people to become more vulnerable to pneumonia and influenza.
"If you look at who is dying, it's the older people," said Leslie Geran, a senior analyst at Statistics Canada. "Sometimes the influenza is early in the year versus late in the year, so that's why you'll seek a peak in December one year and January in other years."
Other studies in the United States point to people postponing medical treatment during the holidays as a possible cause of the spike.
But Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman of Temple B'nai Tikvah in Calgary believes in another reason for the increased deaths in January -- the "mental energy" of some people to spend December celebrating with their families. "I think it's a matter of people who realize that their time is up, but want to hold on to the conclusion of the holidays."
An Ohio State University study from 2005 found that there is no evidence cancer patients have any short-term control over the time of their death--even if they want to live to see family visits, personal milestones or holidays.