Link Between Super Bowl Losses and Heart Attacks More Hype Than Science?

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Earlier this week, results from a study were released that put more on the line for fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers than just Super Bowl XLV bragging rights: Fans of the team that lost the Super Bowl, the study claimed, were 15 percent more likely to die of cardiac arrest in the days following the game.

Turns out, the study might be flawed starting with the very data from which the scientists drew their conclusions.

First off, the Super Bowl study made their conclusions using data from death certificates, which are notoriously short on context. "I'm always hesitant to make conclusions from death certificate data," said David Prince, director of the Cardiac Recovery Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. In this particular case, he said, there's no way to connect any of the deaths to the Super Bowl. Prince told Life's Little Mysteries that a better way to discover an uptick in cardiac events after the big game would be to look for admissions to emergency rooms for heart problems after the game was over and then run a survey to see if those people with heart problems actually watched the game.

Robert Kloner of the Heart Institute at the University of Southern California, who conducted the study, and his team checked death certificate data from the day of the Super Bowl plus the following 14 days. That window might be too large. "I don't think that everyone who dies within 14 days of the Super Bowl died because of the Super Bowl," Prince said.

It's true that there have been studies showing that emotionally stressful events can cause a rise in heart attacks. But in general, Prince said, heart-related deaths from emotional distress are more closely tied to stress surrounding situations more serious than a football game. "I have absolutely observed that stress can trigger angina episodes. But in my clinical experience, we're talking about really heavy-duty emotional stress like sudden death of siblings or children."

In addition, the way the study compared heart attack rates in the fortnight following the Super Bowl to baseline data was inconsistent. Kloner and his team ran the Super Bowl data against heart attack deaths that occurred in the three years following the loss, but then looked at the rate in the four years after the win. "It's unclear why they're looking at different time scales," Prince said. If there were a strong association between Super Bowls and heart failure, the study would be able to show it with the same window of time for losses and wins, he added. Adding another layer of doubt, the study didn't report how many death certificates the researchers combed through to arrive at their conclusions.

Even if the people who died did watch the game, the Super Bowl provides plenty of other reasons for heart failure. "High fat consumption , lack of sleep , smoking , and excessive alcohol drinking are also potential triggers for fatal or nonfatal cardiovascular events, so it may be other behaviors associated with important sporting events rather than the stress of watching the home team lose that may explain these associations," said Gregg Fonarow, director of the Cardiomyopathy Center at UCLA. "There is also some evidence that when individuals have the onset of symptoms that may represent cardiovascular disease while watching a sporting event, they delay seeking medical attention, which may in some cases prove to be a fatal delay."

Another thing about Kloner's study that was curious to our experts: The study seemed to show that fewer people tended to die, compared to the norm, after a Super Bowl win. "There's no reason for mortality to go down after a win," said Prince. "Is there some kind of protective effect from winning? If so, we should package that and sell it."

As we look to this Sunday's game between the Steelers and the Packers, there might be something to the correlation between Super Bowl losses and heart failure. But the evidence is far from clear, and better, more carefully designed studies need to be conducted to make sure that there is any link at all. "I think people like to be scared," Prince said. "And when we don't have a lot of horror movies out, you can always find another reason that people should be afraid."

Follow Katharine Gammon on Twitter @KateGammon  

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