According to a study just published in The Journal of Clinical Cardiology, fatal heart attacks historically spike in the several weeks following big sporting events.
For most sports fans, the worst thing that happens at the Super Bowl party is that their team loses. That brings certain unhappy results: emotional desolation, for one, and possibly, loss of funds depending on the spread. Not to mention, indigestion resulting from too many fried snacks or a scratchy throat from yelling loud enough for your team to hear all the way in Dallas. But these perils pale next to one danger cited recently in the media: fatal Super-Bowl-related heart attacks. If you scream at the TV, “You’re breakin’ my heart, Steelers,” it turns out you just might mean it literally.
According to a study just published in The Journal of Clinical Cardiology, fatal heart attacks historically spike in the several weeks following the big game. The study reviewed death records in Los Angeles County for the two weeks following the Super Bowl in the years 1980-1984. The researchers found that when the score is dangerously close and the game highly charged, the death rate reflects the drama. For instance, in 1980, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the L.A. Rams in a fourth-quarter comeback. In the following weeks, there were 15 percent more deaths among men and 27 percent more among women (yes, you read that correctly, twice as high for women) than in other years compared to the same time period. Conversely, after the boring 1984 game (thank goodness, so many Super Bowl games are boring), no increase in heart-related deaths was noted. The risk is highest for those with a history of heart disease and those over age 65. (But really, almost twice as many women as men??!)
It’s not just the Super Bowl that drives fans to fatal frenzy. A UK study following football (soccer) fans from 1994 to 1999 also found significant increases in heart attacks and stroke in the days following a losing game at home — but only among men. (I guess the “old dears” in England don’t follow the local clubs — only their hubbies do.) And a study following German soccer fans during the 2006 World Cup found that on days when the German team played (and particularly, when the game was close), cardiac emergencies tripled for men and doubled for women. For those with a prior history of heart problems, risk increased by fourfold during a game.
According to football aficionados such as those at Death and Taxes Magazine, “The pain and anguish of a loss from your favorite team is real, devastating, and stressful,” but the researchers aren’t convinced that it’s grief causing all this deadly distress. “Was it due to the fact that the Rams lost?” asks Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Dr. David Frid. “Or was it the emotional roller coaster of the game itself?” The authors of the German study wrote, “Apparently, of prime importance for triggering a stress-induced event is not the outcome of a game — a win or a loss — but rather the intense strain and excitement experienced during the viewing of a dramatic match, such as one with a penalty shootout.”
How, then, do you explain all the women keeling over in the recent study? Do women get more worked up than men about the game? That’s a hard one to accept. Even the researchers admit other factors may well be at play. For instance, there are those Super Bowl snacks — the chips and fries and wings and nacho poppers and beer and cookies and every other imaginable junk food. The overload of unhealthy treats all in one sitting may certainly stress the heart, and women may be stuffing face even more than men, especially if they’re the ones putting the snacks in bowls and plates. The experts speculate that overeating of unhealthy foods leads to heart attacks at other key times — like during the holidays, when cardiac events also spike.
In fact, studies do show that eating a lot of food in one sitting can quadruple heart attack risk. Logically, that should mean we’d see the most heart attacks on Thanksgiving, but in fact, fatalities tend to peak on New Years’ Day, and rise only moderately around Thanksgiving. If you subscribe to the junk-food-orgy-leads-to-quick-death theory, the New Years’ pinnacle for fatal events makes sense because the Thanksgiving meal, though overly large, tends to focus on real food, albeit in excess. New Years’ parties, in contrast, typically focus more on alcohol and fatty treats, as do Super Bowl celebrations.
Other stressful factors that may affect women at least as much as men include the loss of income in the betting pool if their team lost, not to mention grumpy mates after a disappointing game. There is some evidence that there’s a slight increase in domestic violence incidents following the Super Bowl, and plenty of evidence that at least one partner will emerge from the viewing inebriated.
It’s highly unlikely that the heart-attack statistics will deter any dedicated fans from hollering and stomping tomorrow during the Super Bowl. But the real factor here isn’t whether you become crazed by half time or have an extra helping of buffalo wings in the third quarter. The real key is whether you’re in good shape going into the weekend. Eating well and exercising year round will keep your risk down even if you lose all control at game time, though it would certainly be wise to show some restraint in the snacking and drinking department (as if). Incidentally, your biggest risk may not be getting a hear attack, but rather, getting in an auto accident on the way home after the post game party. In fact, deadly traffic accidents increase by 41 percent after a typical Super Bowl game.
It all makes you wonder what happened after a “game” at the Coliseum in ancient Rome. Were there chariot accidents and fatalities from too much wine? Did fans go into states of despair if the lion got the gladiator or vice versa? Certainly fans have been going wild since sports games first began in ancient times, and they won’t stop going wild now. If you’re one of those fans, you know what to do.