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11.29.13

Can Being With Your Family on Thanksgiving Actually Kill You?

We all know that spending time with your extended clan over the holidays can be aggravating. It can also end your life, science says. Here’s how to save yourself before it’s too late.

This Thanksgiving, it’s time to answer the question on everyone’s mind. No, not about Iran’s nuclear program or whether Berlusconi got his comeuppance, but this: Can spending time with your family over the holidays kill you?

Much is written every year regarding the health risks around holidays. Thanksgiving, for example, has the highest number of automobile fatalities of any day in the year, whereas Christmas sees the most cardiac death. And websites high and low have chronicled the risks of eating undercooked turkey, contaminated stuffing, pesticide-riddled cranberries, and all the rest.

But that’s all standard braying. Let’s get to the medical literature about the true main event. Does old-fashioned aggravation—emotional wear and tear, agita, tsuris, call it what you will—really take years off your life? And if so, can it cause you to literally drop dead from that ominous condition called “sudden death”? In other words, can spending time with your family be lethal?

The answer is a resounding yes, at least in terms of direct evidence. The link between stress and heart attacks is something even your great-grandmother knew about. Broken hearts that caused strokes or pneumonia or the simple dwindles were everyday fare for the Victorian novel (and The King and I for that matter) and added thousands of dramatic pages to the world’s literature. 

The scientific explanation began in earnest a few generations ago when objective measures of grief were validated and interest developed in determining the associations between longevity and life events. Marriage for example was shown to lead to a longer life, compared to being widowed or divorced.

These observations came into further focus as researchers began to explore the association between “emotional triggers” and strokes or heart attacks. A review from 1977 by The Scarlet Letter-ish author Dr. Dimsdale connected emotional distress with sudden death, but left causality far out of the mix. The first elucidation of physiologic basis for the connection began in the next decade. In 1988, writing in The New England Journal of Medicine, a group of experts examined “mental stress” and induction of angina (cardiac pain related to insufficient blood supply) and found a substantial connection—particularly when a person was stressed over a public speaking event. Public speaking, let us be clear, is hardly the same as sharing Thanksgiving dinner with cousin Al who has a very successful business in Englewood and a three handicap, but it was a start.

As a Thanksgiving gift, I will give you a clear bottom line on how to avoid this trouble.

Building on this, in 1997, a different group published an article, Effects of Mental Stress on Myocardial Ischemia During Daily Life in JAMA. In this study, the authors used continuous cardiograms attached to people with known heart problems to measure the connection between new troubles on the cardiogram (ischemia) and “high levels of negative emotions.” The negative emotions included tension, sadness, or frustration; patients kept a diary of every negative emotion—not unlike a Twitter feed of the time. The authors were able to show a three-times higher rate of objective (cardiogram-based) evidence of heart trouble in the hour after getting pissed off. Excuse me—after an episode with high levels of negative emotions.

And most recently, researchers reviewed the world’s literature on the topic and found that heart attacks can be triggered by earthquakes, loss of a loved one, job strain, or even a televised high-drama soccer game. Which might seem to confuse the issue a bit, unless you are a fan of soccer.

So the association between actual medical trouble and the emotions is well-established, having left Old Wives’ Tale status long ago. And with such a risk, the fix-it-up, love-yourself-more-damnit crowd, from Oprah  to wordy bloggers complete with 100 traits of toxic people, can’t be far behind.

So yes, a meal laced with too much annoyance actually can bring a fella down. What to do? As a Thanksgiving gift, i.e., to free you from reading Oprah or the latest wrinkle on why your family is more toxic than mine, I will give you a clear bottom line on how to avoid trouble as your friend’s brother’s former roommate holds forth on whether the Pilgrims would have been pro-Israel, or vegan, had the opportunity presented itself. 

Stop thinking. Turn your brain off. Just smile, hum a tune, count backwards from a thousand repeatedly. This too will pass, especially if you ignore it. Or as Hamlet, who had his own issues regarding family gatherings, once said, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”