PINK-CHEEKED, stout and full of holiday cheer, Santa Claus appears the picture of jolly good health, right?
Don't be so sure. A review of medical reports published since fTC last Christmas reveals that age and obesity are catching up with old St. Nick, who may want to think long and hard before mounting his dangerous, airborne mode of transport Christmas Eve.
Studies indicate that weight-related heart disease, poor diet and air pollution could spell doom for Santa as he hurtles through the atmosphere, shouldering his back-wrenching bag of toys and cramming his large body repeatedly down chimneys this holiday.
"People who are inactive, and who go into sudden surges of activity, drop dead with alarming regularity," warned Dr. Joseph Lieberman III, chairman of family and community medicine at the Medical Center of Delaware in Wilmington.
"Santa's behavior is akin to an inactive person who goes out to shovel the first snowfall. That can be quite risky."
While Dr. Lieberman is not Santa's personal physician and admits that he has never met him, the Delaware expert confides that he has had a peek at the Jolly One's medical chart.
According to the third annual review of Santa's health by the Medical Tribune News Service, here is a summary of what he can look forward to:
1. Mr. Claus is simply too fat. What with frequent bingeing on milk and cookies, Santa has ballooned way past the pleasantly plump stage. Scottish researchers reported in the British Medical Journal this year that waist circumference is an easy, accurate measure of a person's risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
Men with a waist circumference greater than 40 inches are at serious risk, the study found. And when last checked, Santa's waistline defied conventional methods of measurement.
2. While Mr. and Mrs. Claus have no in-laws living with them at the North Pole, the hundreds of elves in residence constitute perhaps the largest extended family in existence. This could endanger Santa's health, according to Duke University researchers, whose study in March found that family-induced stress is a strong risk factor for illness, hospitalizations and poor quality of life.
"If those elves aren't as happy as they seem to be, that's not a good environment for Santa," Dr. Lieberman said.
3. The air itself could kill Santa. Two reports released this year detail the ills associated with pollution. A study in the British medical journal Lancet described how ultra-fine particles in urban air pollution can contribute to heart disease, and a report in the American Journal of Public Health found that carbon monoxide in air pollution can cause or exacerbate congestive heart failure in the elderly.
Santa Claus' yearly trips give him regular, intense exposure to pollution over major urban cities. Multiply that exposure by the hundreds of trips Santa has taken, and you may have a serious problem.
4. One thing Mr. Claus can't afford to lose is his night vision, which helps him crisscross the world on his toy delivery route. But Santa's weight eventually may force him to hand over the reins because, according to a study by Harvard researchers in the Archives of Ophthalmology, overweight men are more likely to develop cataracts.
A man of Santa's considerable heft could have up to a 75 percent greater risk of developing cloudy vision than a slimmer man, the study found. This may or may not be a problem, as rumor has it the reindeer pretty much drive themselves.
It's not all bad news for Santa Claus, because other research shows that with a little wine, some exercise and the right food, the merry one can go about his Christmas rounds without so much as straining a muscle.
1. Santa's penchant for drink may work to his advantage if the wine is red and is taken in moderate amounts, according to two studies. Researchers from Lyon-Bron, France, found that red wine in moderation decreased the "stickiness" of blood and its tendency to clot, while white wine's effects were weaker and more short-lived.
Researchers from the University of California at Davis, meanwhile, determined that red wines had more anti-oxidant properties than white, which could be the reason for their health benefits. In particular, the red Petite Sirah, 1987 vintage (Santa's favorite, according to Mrs. Claus), had the greatest anti-oxidant properties.
2. Mr. Claus, who likes to keep indoors 364 days of the year, could benefit from a little physical activity once in a while, instead of watching "It's a Wonderful Life" all day. Numerous studies over the past year attest to the ability of moderate exercise to lower the risk of stroke and colon cancer, and to alleviate lower-back pain -- a growing complaint of Santa's as children make longer and longer toy lists each year.
3. Finally, a simple change in diet -- Santa insists on taking several slugs of eggnog with every meal -- could improve Mr. Claus' health considerably. For example, Kentucky researchers reporting in the New England Journal of Medicine in August found that soy protein -- the kind found in tofu, soy milk and soy meat -- lowered cholesterol levels dramatically if eaten at high enough levels.
"What children leave Santa may be the worst things for him," Dr. Lieberman said. "He's dealing with a high-fat diet, when he should be eating more vegetables and fiber."
Jason Kahn wrote this article for Medical Tribune News Service.