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Approach of holidays has no effect on time of death

The idea that dying people hang on to life in order to celebrate one more birthday or holiday lacks any scientific basis, say scientists who reviewed two decades' worth of research.

"The studies published to date have not convincingly established that death can be postponed through force of will or hastened by the loss of the desire to live," say Judith A. Skala, R.N., Ph.D., and Kenneth E. Freedland, Ph.D., of Washington University School of Medicine.

Available research is contradictory, shows only modest effects and is often of poor quality, Skala and Freedland say. In many cases, these studies also fail to explain any mechanisms that would delay or advance death.

Their review appears in the May issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

This hypothesis, first presented in a sociology journal 30 years ago, suggested that people who would have otherwise died can will themselves to stay alive in order to experience some personally or culturally meaningful event. But the idea doesn't hold up after a close look at the body of evidence in this literature.

For instance, one study claimed that there was a 19 percent dip in deaths among prominent Americans in the month before their birthdays and a 14 percent rise in the month afterward. However, Skala and Freedland say, the original authors include the birth month itself in the "after" category. That meant that some of the "post-birthday" deaths may have occurred before the actual birthday.

Another study of natural death, suicides and homicides in Philadelphia in 1982 found near-chance rates of death in the one-, two- and three-month periods around the birthdays of the dead.

Two studies analyzed the deaths of members of certain religious groups before and after their major holidays. A study of Catholic priests found no variation in mortality around Christmas, Easter, birthdays or anniversaries of their ordination. Another found a dip in deaths before and a rise af
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Contact: Judith A. Skala
skalaj@bmc.wustl.edu
Center for the Advancement of Health
21-May-2004


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