This Sunday’s Super Bowl could prove to be a real heartbreaker for some fans of the losing team. A new study suggests that the emotional stress fans feel after a loss may trigger fatal heart attacks, especially in people who already have heart disease.
Stress generates the so-called fight-or-flight response, which causes sharp upticks in heart rate and blood pressure that can strain the heart. For people with heart disease—or for those who are at risk due to factors such as obesity, smoking, and diabetes—such strain can prove harmful, if not fatal.
In the study, which was published today in the journal Clinical Cardiology, researchers analyzed death records in Los Angeles County for the two weeks following the 1980 and 1984 Super Bowls, both of which featured teams from Los Angeles. (The game days were included.) Then, as a control, the researchers looked at the same data from the corresponding days in the intervening years.
In 1980, when the Pittsburgh Steelers staged a fourth-quarter comeback to beat the underdog L.A. Rams, heart-related deaths shot up 15 percent among men and 27 percent among women in the subsequent two weeks, compared to the same period in 1981 through 1983. There was also a significant increase in deaths among people ages 65 and older, the study found.
The 1984 Super Bowl was a different story. The L.A. Raiders handily beat the Washington Redskins, and unlike four years earlier, the cardiac death rate didn’t increase after the game. In fact, the death rate for women and older people dropped slightly.
“Fans develop an emotional connection to their team…and when their team loses, that’s an emotional stress,” says the lead author of the study, Robert A. Kloner, MD, a professor of cardiology at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, in Los Angeles. “There’s a brain-heart connection, and it is important for people to be aware of that.”
The apparent link between the Super Bowl loss and heart-related deaths is plausible but largely speculative. Dr. Kloner and his colleagues looked only at death-certificate data, not individuals, and they can’t be sure that the people who succumbed to heart attacks following the 1980 game were Rams fans, or even watched the game.
David Frid, MD, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic who was not involved in the study, agrees that “emotional triggers” can set off heart attacks and other cardiac events. But he’s not convinced that grief caused by the hometown loss was responsible for the spike in deaths.
“Was it due to the fact that the Rams lost?” Dr. Frid asks. “Or was it the emotional roller coaster of the game itself? Does it have to do with the excitement of the event?