A Game So Good It Could Kill You


Dr. William O'Neill, executive dean of clinical affairs at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine, adds that in his past research, he and his colleagues found that heart rates of deer hunters immediately spike by 30 percent when they spot their prey — yet another demonstration of this principle.

Thus, he notes, the leap to heart problems in Super Bowl fans may not be so far off.

"It may that intense emotional excitement triggers a sudden increase in heart rate that could cause a heart attack in sedentary spectators," O'Neill says. "There is not enough published information in the U.S. about spectator sporting events to make formal recommendations to people in general. Perhaps after this study, we may need to revisit this problem."

But how does this happen? Cardiology experts note that the high anxiety of sports events can set off a chain of physiological reactions that can ultimately lead to heart emergencies.

"Stress hormones are released during the emotional viewing of play-by-play action that can increase blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen demand to the heart, which can lead to problems if the heart is not able to compensate," Mosca says. "Also, emotional triggers like watching the Super Bowl can lead to release of inflammatory molecules and may increase blood clotting, both of which can contribute to an increased risk of a heart attack."

Cutting Your Risk

While doctors acknowledge that intense emotion does seem to dial up heart risk, many note that there isn't enough solid evidence yet in the U.S. population to warrant formal recommendations for heart patients who will be watching the Super Bowl.

"We cannot assume that the French will react emotionally-chemically in an identical way to the British or the Germans — let alone Americans... We do not have any conclusive findings regarding Super Bowl and heart attacks," says Dr. David Prince, director of the cardiac recovery program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

Still, cardiologists say many fans would do well to take the findings to heart.

"Fans with heart disease should be careful," says Dr. Robert J. Myerburg, American Heart Association chair in cardiovascular research and professor of medicine at the University of Miami. "Unfortunately, somewhere between 33 percent and 50 percent of all sudden cardiac deaths occur as first events — so a lot of people can't be forewarned."

And even with appropriate warning, what die-hard Giants or Patriots fan would miss the big game?

Fortunately, there are steps that those with heart problems can take to reduce their risk of heart-related events, notes Dr. Thomas Pearson of the department of community and preventive medicine at the University of Rochester.

"Everyone should have their risk assessed by a health professional and behaviors or conditions that cause that risk to be high should be treated with lifestyle change or medications, as directed by your healthcare provider," Pearson says.

"Americans who feel they may experience stress during major — or minor — sporting or life events should consider taking an aspirin beforehand, " says Dr. John Byrne, professor and chairman of cardiac surgery at the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute in Nashville, Tenn. "Aspirin, of course, is an over-the-counter, inexpensive and safe medication... This would be very safe, simple and practical for the majority of Americans."

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