Dec. 22, 2000 -- While the Super Bowl, World Series, Final Four, and even the Olympics may conjure up images of cheering, clapping, and unbridled enthusiasm, a new study of Dutch men shows that something about major sporting events can also trigger heart attacks and strokes.
Whether it's the stress of rooting for a losing team, the six-pack of beer guzzled during a pregame tailgate, the devoured hot dogs, cigarettes chain-smoked during the event, or some combination thereof is unclear, report a research team led by Diederick E. Grobbee, a professor of clinical epidemiology at the University Medical Center in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in this week's issue of the British Medical Journal.
On June 22, 1996 -- the day the Dutch football team was knocked out of the European football championship -- there was a 50% increase in male deaths from heart attack or stroke, compared with the number of deaths both five days before and after the match and in the same time period during 1995 and 1997. Overall, there were 14 additional deaths in men on the day of the football championship.
Major sporting events now join a growing list of emotional heart attack triggers, including earthquakes, wars, and even those dreaded Monday mornings.
From June 8, 1996 to June 30, 1996, the European Football Championship was played in England. The Dutch team advanced to the finals and played against France on June 22. The match was tied, 0-0, even after overtime. Eventually, France won on penalty kicks. About 9.8 million people watched the match -- a number that includes about 60% of the Dutch population.
"Our results add prospective evidence for the role of triggering factors, including mental and emotional stress in cardiovascular deaths in men," Grobbee and colleagues conclude. "The triggers induced by a critical football match may not be due solely to mental or emotional stress. Notably, heavy alcohol use, overeating, and excessive smoking may also play a part."
The researchers state that more research is needed to understand the difference between the sexes, since there was no similar increase of deaths in women on this day.
"As the authors note, the reported findings are consistent with a series of others showing that intense emotions can trigger cardiac events," says Peter G. Kaufmann, PhD, the leader of the Behavioral Medicine Research Group at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md. "Perhaps the most important message is that chest pain symptoms that occur during sporting events or other emotionally provocative circumstances must be taken seriously."
Individuals who are vulnerable because of significant heart artery clogging should already be on appropriate medications, Kaufmann tells WebMD. "Moderation in food and drink is always a good strategy, and this is especially the case for smoking," he says.
"Sports events should be enjoyed with enthusiasm -- and this can be done without fear of untoward effects, especially if we have the good sense not to ignore symptoms of a heart attack," he adds.
These symptoms include:
- Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing, or pain in the center of the chest lasting more than a few minutes.
- Pain spreading to the shoulders, neck, or arms.
- Chest discomfort with lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea, or shortness of breath.
When asked whether diehard sports fans should take an aspirin before the game, Kaufmann says that "individuals who have verified heart disease are already under the care of a physician. For others, in a large population, there may be offsetting influences. For example, aspirin slightly increases risk of hemorrhagic stroke, a very serious condition."
"I don't think any advice will be listened to because guys are going to go out to those games," Redford Williams, MD, a behavioral medicine researcher at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., tells WebMD. "We are talking about an acute situation where you are probably drinking, probably eating a bunch of fatty food, and ... are [probably] screaming, hollering, and getting all emotionally overwrought."
The alcohol could raise your blood pressure, fatty foods could make blood more likely to clot, and the stress of screaming when your team wins or loses raises stress levels, explains Williams, the author of Anger Kills.
"If you put all of this together," he says, "you may have a heart attack."