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Death Takes a Raincheck

Skala, Judith A. RN, PhD; Freedland, Kenneth E. PhD


Objective: To review the research literature on temporal variation in mortality rates around symbolically important occasions.

Methods: Qualitative literature review.

Results: Since the early 1970s, at least 18 studies have investigated whether death rates increase or decrease before, during, or after symbolically important occasions such as holidays and birthdays. Some studies but not others have found modest evidence of temporal effects. Methodological issues have raised questions about most of the positive findings. None of the studies provides any direct evidence that a psychophysiological mechanism enables people to postpone or hasten their own death.

Conclusion: Research over the past 3 decades has failed to provide convincing evidence that psychological phenomena such as “giving up” or “holding on” can influence the timing of death.

From the Department of Psychiatry, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Judith A. Skala, RN, PhD, Department of Psychiatry, Washington University School of Medicine, 4625 Lindell Blvd., Suite 420, St. Louis, MO 63108. E-mail:

Received for publication July 29, 2003; revision received December 30, 2003.

Copyright © 2004 by American Psychosomatic Society
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