April may be the cruelest month, per Eliot, but it isn’t the deadliest. That honor goes to January.
The seasonality of death — more deaths in the winter, fewer in the summer — is a well-established and long-running public health mystery.
A few years ago, a sociology professor named David Phillips examined 57 million death certificates issued between 1979 and 2004 and made an interesting finding: Not only do more people die in the winter months, but New Year’s Day is actually the deadliest day of all. Phillips plotted the millions of deaths from natural causes according to the day of year on which they occurred, and this is what he ended up with:
You get a sort of wave of death that ebbs in the late summer months, rises sharply through December, and hits a peak exactly on Jan. 1 before subsiding more gradually through the beginning of the year.
The general contours of this wave are well known — you can plot it yourself year-over-year from 1999 using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s WONDER database. Lately, a typical January has seen 40,000 to 60,000 more fatalities than the typical August or September. Here’s what that looks like:
The burning question: Why? Does it have something to do with suicides or car crashes or drinking around the holidays? Nope: “This pattern turns up in every natural cause of death, but not for external causes like auto accidents,” Phillips said in an interview. “It’s hard to understand why that would be.”
In other words, the deaths are being driven generally by illness, disease and old age, rather than by accidents or homicides or any other non-health-related cause.
Not only do we not know what’s driving the seasonality, we’re not even trying to figure it out as far as Phillips is concerned. Nobody he’s aware of is doing any research into it. “It’s not only a mystery, but a mystery that people haven’t even tried to engage with,” he said.
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham