Does the Super Bowl Really Cause Heart Attacks?

Anne L. Finger, MA

Disclosures

January 30, 2014

Football and Heart Attacks?

In recent years, a number of published studies purport to show that the stress and high emotion surrounding the Super Bowl and other major sports events can increase the risk for heart attack death among spectators. Is it true or is it just hype?

"Die-Hard Sports Fans Face Heart Risk," warned the New York Times[1] in a 2008 headline. The article described a study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine,[2] that compared heart attacks among German fans during the 2006 World Cup with cardiac emergencies that occurred at other times that year. The study found that men had more than 3 times -- and women more than twice -- the number of attacks at the time of the games, reaching a peak during the "knock-out" games that determined whether their team progressed to the next level of play. The risk was highest for fans with pre-existing heart disease.

Similarly, "Super Bowl May Trigger Heart Attacks," cautioned CNN Health in 2011,[3] describing a study that had appeared in Clinical Cardiology.[4] On the basis of death certificates in Los Angeles County for the 2 weeks after the 1980 and 1984 Super Bowls, when Los Angeles teams participated, the researchers reported that after the LA team's losing game, heart-related deaths soared by 15% in men and by an astonishing 27% in women compared with deaths at other times.

Are these concerns well founded? The picture is confusing, as 2 conflicting journal article titles illustrate. In 2010, "Sporting Events Affect Spectators' Cardiovascular Mortality: It Is Not Just a Game," an earlier, related Super Bowl study, appeared in the American Journal of Medicine.[5] That same year, the International Journal of Epidemiology carried an article titled "It Is Just a Game: Lack of Association Between Watching Football Matches and the Risk of Acute Cardiovascular Events. "[6]

Are the Data Overstated?

Let's look at the Super Bowl studies first. In the American Journal of Medicine study, researchers examined death certificate data for all deaths and from deaths due to circulatory system disease, heart failure, congestive heart failure, ischemic heart disease, and acute myocardial infarction (MI) from January 15 through the end of February for each year from 1980 to 1988.

They then compared those deaths with those that occurred on control days -- all other days in January and February except the winter holiday times from January 1 to 14. Their conclusion: "The emotional stress of loss and/or the intensity of a game played by a sports team in a highly publicized rivalry such as the Super Bowl can trigger total and cardiovascular deaths."[5]

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