It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
So goes the beginning of Charles Dickens’ classic, “A Tale of Two Cities.” From the perspective of our health, much the same could be said of the holiday season. Fresh off the reflective gratitude, camaraderie and indulgence of Thanksgiving, I’m told we find ourselves in the early stages of a shortened Christmas shopping season. The holidays, like so much in life, offer both opportunity and challenge.
Let’s begin with social connectedness. Humans are social beings. Interaction, compassion and empathy, such as that found among loving family members and friends, are the healthy elixirs of life. Some of the longest-lived cultures in the world, also known as the “blue zones,” are characterized in part by close relationships. Likewise, family connectedness and social connectedness are known as buffers against the risk for depression and suicide.
The holiday season is a time for gathering with loved ones. Yet, for some – including the elderly, those in grieving, the lonely and the marginalized – the holiday season can magnify a sense of disconnectedness. It is an especially important time to reach out to those among us who need social connection, for the sake of their health and our own.
Holiday traditions are often the root of habits which, when practiced thoughtfully all year long, can yield a harvest of healthful benefits. A home-prepared meal – served family style at the dining room table, around which sit family and friends who linger in conversation long enough to enjoy simple satiety before becoming overfull – is the type of meal still enjoyed during the holidays but which has become so scarce during the rest of the year.
Indulgence comes in many forms, but the holidays are a time of special indulgences, such as food and alcohol. From diet-busting sugary sweets and beverages to waistline-enhancing meal sizes, the weeks between the fourth Thursday of November and New Year’s Day can destroy a year’s worth of healthy habits. Excess alcohol intake (think daily drinking or more than one to two drinks a day) contributes to a litany of health risks from liver disease to high blood pressure. The counterpoint is, if not temperance, then at least moderation.
The stress of holiday obligations can be overwhelming. Perhaps it should not be surprising that major adverse health events such as heart attacks tend to congregate toward the end of the year. Yet, a load shared is halved, and in the context of shared holiday preparations, an opportunity exists for intergenerational dialog from which not only wisdom may grow but also knowledge about family health history. Knowing one’s family history can go a long way toward identifying health risks and mitigating them through focused screening and prevention.
So, yes, the holiday season presents a sort of health paradox. Yet, on the whole, it is possible to derive certain benefits from social connectedness, healthy traditions, a commitment to moderation and learning more about the family health history.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.