A Game So Good It Could Kill You

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White knuckles. Racing pulses. Grinding teeth. Clenched fists.

It's no secret that emotions will be running high both on and off the field this Superbowl Sunday. But along with the well-known emotional rollercoaster ride brought about by the thrill of victory — or the agony of defeat — may come certain heart risks. So says a new study published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers looked at the occurrence of heart emergencies during another major sports event — the 2006 World Cup, which Germany hosted in June and July of that year. Specifically, the researchers concentrated on the number of cardiac events reported by German soccer fans who watched the games.

They found that heart emergencies more than doubled on days the German team played.

Moreover, among men, the number of heart emergencies tripled on these days. In particular, the study suggests, the risk of heart attack increased by 250 percent and risk of irregular heartbeat increased by more than 300 percent for these fans.

Thus far, there is no research that shows definitively that fans of American football face these same heart risks. However, heart experts say it's likely — and that Sunday's culmination of the NFL season could pose a special risk for those who have heart issues.

"The excitement of watching the upcoming Super Bowl could put some individuals at risk of an acute heart problem including heart attack, death or an irregular heart rhythm," says Dr. Lori Mosca, professor of medicine and director of preventive cardiology at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University Medical Center.

"The old joke is that many wives across the nation will become 'football widows' that day," notes Dr. Richard Luceri, a cardiac electrophysiologist and vice president of medical services for JM Family Enterprises in Deerfield Beach, Fla. "But this new report is the first valid and statistically significant study verifying how high emotions and acute stress while watching major sporting events actually do increase the risk for heart emergencies."

Emotions and the Heart

The German study is far from the first to draw links between emotional stress — both good and bad — and potentially dangerous heart problems.

Dr. Shukri David, section chief of the division of cardiology at Providence Hospital and Medical Centers, says numerous studies in the past have pointed to a connection between anxiety-generating events and heart problems.

"Stress may be due to the excitement of a sporting event, or natural disasters like hurricanes, marital problems, death in the family or financial crises," David says, adding that this is known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy in the U.S. — and "takotsubo" in Japan.

And some of these studies are recent. "In the mid- to late 1990s, James E. Muller directed the ONSET study, which looked at the activities of patients immediately prior to the onset of their [heart attack]," notes Dr. Peter Schulman, associate professor of cardiology at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. "It clearly identified emotionally charged activities — including upsetting events, sexual activity, et cetera — as possible precipitants of [heart attack]."

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