Post–Super Bowl Heartbreak: Cardiac Death Risk May Rise for Losing Fans

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Steelers and Packers fans may not have much to bond over during this Sunday’s Super Bowl, but after the game they may both experience certain changes of heart.

It turns out that passionately following a team to a climactic event like the Super Bowl championship may be stressful enough to trigger heart attack or heart disease. In a study of Los Angeles county residents, before and after the L.A. teams’ two Super Bowl appearances, researchers found that a win correlated with a decrease in heart-related deaths while a loss was linked to a spike in cardiac deaths in the weeks following the game. (More on Study: Former NFL Players Are Popping Painkillers and in ‘Poor Health’)

The scientists, led by Dr. Robert Kloner of Good Samaritan Hospital and the University of Southern California, collected death certificate data from L.A. County for the months of January and February — including days before and after the Super Bowl — from 1980 to 1988. Because heart-related deaths tend to increase during the winter, even in warmer climates, the researchers excluded deaths occurring in the first two weeks of January.

Following the L.A. Rams’ 1980 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, data show there were 15% more heart-related deaths among L.A. County men and 27% more among women, compared with years when the team wasn’t in the Super Bowl. Conversely, after the L.A. Raiders’ 1984 win against the Washington Redskins, there was a dip in cardiac deaths on average, compared with non-Super Bowl years.

What interested Kloner is that L.A.’s championship game-day loss triggered an increase in heart deaths among women as well as in men. Previous research, including an earlier version of the current analysis as well as studies done on European soccer fans, had focused on male fans, since they make up the majority of the soccer and football audience. But the peak in deaths among both genders found in the current study suggests that there may be a broader effect of the stress-related emotion attached to the Super Bowl — even among women who are not avid football fans. “Women may be just as passionate about home teams as men are, and alternatively, perhaps a male’s reaction to a Super Bowl loss may adversely affect the emotional state of his female partner,” says Kloner. (More on Photos: The Making of the Super Bowl Footballs)

If the legendary fervor of Green Bay and Pittsburgh fans is any indication, there may some extreme reactions next week. But Kloner, who has been studying shorter-term triggers of heart attack (as opposed to the more familiar chronic risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels), isn’t suggesting that all losing fans will suddenly start keeling over with heart attacks. The risk may be associated not only with a team’s win or loss, and with how intensely fans connect with their team, but also with the nature of the game itself.

The L.A. Rams’ 1980 Super Bowl loss, for instance, was a tight, nail-biting contest between two equally matched teams. The game was played in Pasadena, and the Rams had earned a loyal and devoted fan based during the team’s many years in the city. The loss, says Kloner, may have triggered a more intensely emotional response because the game and the team were more engaging. (More on The Top 10 Super Bowl Moments)

“Emotional stress stimulates the fight or flight response,” says Kloner. “The sympathetic nervous system is jazzed up, and adrenalin is released. What does that do to the circulatory system? It increases heart rate, blood pressure and forces faster contraction of the heart, which leads to an increase in demand for oxygen. When that demand isn’t met, heart arteries can spasm, leading to ruptures of plaques that cut off blood flow to the heart muscle and cause a heart attack.”

By contrast, the 1984 win occurred a continent away, on the East Coast, and the L.A. Raiders were a relatively new transplant to Los Angeles (the team moved from Oakland to L.A. in 1982, then back to Oakland in 1995). The Raiders also led most of the game, leaving little doubt as to the outcome. So the same emotions that had gripped L.A. fans during their 1980 loss, may not have been in play among fans in 1984.

While a sports team’s win or loss may seem like a trivial driver of a heart attack, Kloner notes that any traumatic or stressful event can set off a heart attack. Rates of sudden cardiac death spiked after the Northridge earthquake for example, and for years now, researchers have also been wary of peaks during the Christmas holiday season, when emotional stress levels rise.

Kloner says controlling known risk factors for heart disease, such as weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, can help to reduce the risk that a more sudden event can trigger, and lowering stress overall may be a good idea as well.

As for all those rabid Packers and Steelers fans out there, remember, there’s always next year.

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