This Sunday, millions of football fans will watch the Super Bowl. And while most of them can look forward to a fun time, a new study suggests that some die-hard fans will get more excitement than they bargained for.
Researchers at the Heart Institute, Good Samarian Hospital and Keck School of Medicine at USC in Los Angeles, have found that cardiovascular emergencies such as heart attacks increase significantly during and immediately following close games.  The brain and body tend to treat an intense sporting competition as an emergency, sending the heart racing, blood pressure skyrocketing, and stress hormones spiking in a fight-or-flight response. This stress can overload the cardiovascular system, triggering a very real emergency. And all the heart-unhealthy behaviors fans tend to indulge in during a big game (fatty foods, smoking, drinking) exacerbate the risk.
And if that game is the Super Bowl? The television broadcast might think about adding a warning: "Viewing this game may be fatal." The threat is especially great for fans of the losing team. The medical researchers obtained death-certificate data in Los Angeles County from 1980 to 1988 - a period in which Los Angeles teams went to the Super Bowl twice. (Los Angeles Rams vs the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1980 - L.A. lost - and Los Angeles Raiders vs. the Washington Redskins in 1984 -L.A. won.)
They compared death rates for the two week period following the Super Bowl, both in the years when the home team was playing and when they were not. After the 1980 Super Bowl loss, there was a significant increase in both all-cause deaths and cardiac deaths in both men (15% increase) and women (27% increase) compared to the control years. In contrast, there was actually a slight decrease in death among older people and women in the two weeks following the 1984 Super Bowl win - all that joy is apparently an antidote to the stress of the games.
The researchers point to similar statistics for other sporting events worldwide. (2) In 2006, when Germany hosted the soccer World Cup, cardiovascular emergencies increased every time the German team played a match, especially within the first two hours after the start of each match. But when the French team won the world cup, heart attacks and death rates went down among local fans.
There are also clinical reports of Hockey-related heart attacks, including the case of two brothers who, during separate games, died of ruptured aortic aneurysms. (A third hockey case woke up from emergency heart surgery, and the first words out of his mouth were, "Who won the game?)
To avoid post-Super Bowl catastrophe, the researchers recommend preventive cardiovascular therapy for those who are at risk. This could include a pre-game regime of beta-blockers and aspirin, for those who have prescriptions, and deep breathing and meditation for the rest of us.
And for your health, I hope your team wins!
Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her latest book is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.
1. R.A. Kloner, S.A. McDonald, J. Leeka, W.K. Poole (2011). Role of Age, Sex, and Race on Cardiac and Total Mortality Associated With Super Bowl Wins and Losses. Clinical Cardiology. In press.
2. J. Leeka, B.G. Schwartz, R.A. Kloner (2010). Sporting Events Affect Spectators' Cardiovascular Mortality: It Is Not Just a Game. The American Journal of Medicine, 123, 972-977.