Are certain months deadlier than others?
A Seven Days editor observed recently that, while most sections of the Burlington Free Press have been shrinking, one section has been growing in recent months: the death notices and obituary pages.
Several phone calls confirmed that this phenomenon isn’t isolated to Vermont’s largest daily. The Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus and Rutland Herald both reported upticks in their obits and death notices in January and February. WTF? Do more people shuffle off this mortal coil in the dead of winter than during warmer months? And, if so, which months are the deadliest?
We’ve all heard the old wives’ tale that full moons coincide with an increase in births, murders and psychiatric patients showing up in emergency rooms. This notion persists despite the lack of evidence to support it. Experts also say it’s not true that baby booms occur nine months after major disasters, such as the New York City blackout of 1977 or the attacks of 9/11.
But not all seasonal fluctuations are illusory. National birth records confirm that August and September are the busiest months for obstetricians and labor-and-delivery nurses. The likely culprit? Cold-weather canoodling.
And January is the grim reaper’s busiest month, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. (Birth and death patterns are reversed down under.) Anecdotally, those who work in the American “death business” report that business rises whenever the mercury drops, says Josh Slocum at the Funeral Consumers Alliance in South Burlington. (Locals may also notice additional obits as the warm weather approaches. Why? Many Vermont burials are postponed until the ground thaws.)
What’s behind this midwinter die-off? One might assume that modern amenities such as indoor plumbing, central heat and 24-hour supermarkets would mitigate nature’s annual herd thinning.
Accidents don’t explain it. You’re nearly 10 times more likely to die of a tractor mishap in September than in February, and nine times more likely to die in a tornado in May than in January. While more house fires occur in the winter than in the summer, they represent a small fraction of the overall mortality picture.
Nor are icy roads the culprit. Statistically, you’re more likely to get creamed by a semi in the summer or fall, when more drivers are on the road. In fact, January and February post the fewest miles traveled during the year. Similarly, motorcycle fatalities peak from July through September and bottom out from December through February, when most Harleys are in hibernation.
That said, you’re more likely to die in a car wreck on any holiday weekend, regardless of the temperature outside. The top two days of the year to eat it behind the wheel are July 4 (No. 1) and July 3 (No. 2). For pedestrians, however, the deadliest day on average is January 1. It also ranks fifth for overall deaths, in part because of the sheer quantity of booze guzzled on New Year’s Eve.
And, lest we forget, winter ’tis the season for being blue, which explains why suicides peak from November through January. Researchers also note depression can contribute to deaths from alcohol poisoning, drug overdoses, and other household and workplace accidents.
Far more important as a cause of midwinter expirations, though, is the simple association between contagious disease — which tends to claim the oldest, sickest and frailest among us — and cold weather. Respiratory illnesses such as influenza, tuberculosis and whooping cough all peak in December, when most people are indoors swapping germs. Other diseases and chronic conditions can be exacerbated by the cold.
Which brings us to an interesting finding about the most deadly time of month. The New England Journal of Medicine published a study several years ago describing a “boundary effect”: The first week of any month sees an abrupt increase in deaths over the last week of the preceding month.
Why? The beginning of the month is often associated with unpleasant events, such as bill payments, home foreclosures and apartment evictions. Moreover, many federal benefits, such as social security, welfare payments and military benefits, arrive at the beginning of the month, permitting more discretionary spending on drugs and alcohol.
The researchers found that, as discretionary income dwindles toward month’s end, so do drug- and alcohol-related deaths. The “boundary effect” also applies to deaths by homicide, suicide or accident.
What about the deadliest days of the week? We know heart attacks peak on Mondays — one more reason to call in sick that day — and drunk-driving fatalities are most common on Friday and Saturday nights.
If all this grim news isn’t enough to keep you in bed until spring, here’s some final food for thought: In 2001, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study suggesting that your life span beyond the age of 50 may depend on the month in which you were born. Huh?
Yes, researchers studying populations in Austria and Denmark found that people who were born from October through December tended to live longer than those born from April through June. The researchers concluded that “remaining life expectancy” after age 50 “appears to depend on factors that arise in utero or early in infancy and that increase susceptibility to diseases later in life.” Curiously, the study was mum on how winter babies fare versus summer ones.
One plausible explanation for the stats: The populations studied by the researchers were born many decades ago, when seasonally inadequate nutrition was still common enough to cause lower average birth weights in those who gestated over the winter.
Still, I’m glad I’m a Libra.
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