I wonder if we’d spend so much time and energy celebrating the New Year if more of us were aware of this strange and rather disturbing fact: January 1st is the deadliest day of the year!

Why, you may ask? Well, even more disconcerting– we don’t know for sure.

After examining 57 million death certificates issued between 1979 and 2004 (that’s a lot of death to study), UC San Diego sociology professor David Phillips discovered this surprising fact. He also learned that more people die in the winter months than summer ones, with the peak hitting exactly on January 1st!

Don’t believe him? You can plot it yourself year-over-year from 1999 using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s WONDER database. A typical January hosts 40,000 to 60,000 more fatalities than the typical August or September. Well, now I’m afraid to leave the house.

Now, I know what you are thinking. Is this due to DUIs or suicides around the holidays? No! The deaths are generally due to illness, disease, or good ol’ fashion old age. Phillips explains, “This pattern turns up in every natural cause of death, but not for external causes like auto accidents. It’s hard to understand why that would be.”

Ever the detective, Phillips started looking for clues as to why January 1st was such a cursed day. The cold weather is not a factor, because the holiday spikes are even bigger in the warmer, Southern states. The spike is just as big if you exclude people who died from alcohol or drugs, or people who died from pneumonia or the flu. Interesting.

Phillips did come up with a couple of hypotheses that he wasn’t able to rule out completely: There has been some research showing that “people postpone going into the ER around the holidays because they want to be with their family.” That’s sweet, but possibly deadly. In situations where minutes or seconds can mean the difference between life and death, some people who feel a twinge of chest pain at the start of their holiday dinner might not tell anyone about it until dessert.

Or, perhaps the reason for the spike in deaths has to do with understaffed hospitals. During the holidays the most experienced workers are often those who are allowed to take time off. That could lead to reduced performance and reduced ability to save lives. (Though don’t tell that to the dinner party guest who’s already hiding his chest pain.)

Now, don’t panic. Phillips repeatedly stressed that his numbers don’t prove that either of these scenarios are actually happening. He just couldn’t eliminate either one, and that a lot more research is needed.

“The next step is for hospitals to look at much smaller data sets and to gather much more detail,” he said. “If you did that, then you could see if indeed there was an association between seniority of staff and the number of staff and the jump in fatalities.”

All this is to say if you’re feeling ill during the holidays, don’t be afraid to visit a doctor. You don’t want to become another statistic.

(Image via Showtime)