MELBOURNE, Dec. 23 (UPI) -- Researchers from the University of Melbourne have found that the increase in heart attacks around Christmas may have more to do with the holiday than the time of year.
The study showed that more difficult access to hospitals, stress, excess alcohol consumption and a more fatty diet all were factors contributing to the increase in heart attacks between Christmas and New Year's.
In a similar study, researchers from the United States found an increase in heart attacks during the Christmas holiday, but it was thought to correlate with the winter season when mortality rates are at their highest.
Josh Knight, lead author and researcher at the Center for Health Policy at the University of Melbourne, analyzed 25 years of death records of heart-related deaths between Christmas and the first week of January, which is summer in Australia, to determine if the weather played more of a role in the increase in heart attacks than the holiday itself.
Researchers used the information to separate the "holiday effect" from the "winter effect" by using data from countries in the southern hemisphere where Christmas is during the summer months.
The study found a 4.2 percent increase in heart-related deaths occurring outside of the hospital setting during the Christmas holiday in New Zealand. The age of cardiac-related deaths decreased during that time as well, from 76.2 years during Christmas compared to 77.1 years other times of the year.
"The Christmas holiday period is a common time for travel within New Zealand, with people frequently holidaying away from their main medical facilities," Knight said in a press release. "This could contribute to delays in both seeking treatment, due to lack of familiarity with nearby medical facilities, and due to geographic isolation from appropriate medical care in emergency situations."
Restricted access to healthcare combined with emotional stress, changes in diet and alcohol consumption all contributed to the rise in heart attacks but the study also found that terminally ill patients often hold off death for a day that is important to them.
"The ability of individuals to modify their date of death based on dates of significance has been both confirmed and refuted in other studies, however, it remains a possible explanation for this holiday effect," Knight said.
The study was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.