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Carol J. Scott, M.D. Headshot

The Super Bowl, Stress and Heart Health

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Full disclosure: As a Baltimorean I am a proud Ravens Fan!

This Sunday, being an avid fan during the Super Bowl game could prove deadly. According to a 2011 study published in the journal Clinical Cardiology, the emotional stress experienced by fans of a losing team could increase an individual's risk of heart attack. In particular, people with risk factors like smoking, diabetes or obesity could be at a higher risk of cardiovascular events.

For the study, researchers analyzed death rates of residents in Los Angeles following Super Bowls in 1984 and 1980. In both of these games, the city of Los Angeles' NFL team participated.

After studying death records for a two-week period following the two Super Bowls, researchers took a look at death records for for the corresponding days in other years.

In 1980, the Los Angeles Rams were pummeled by the Pittsburgh Steelers in an unexpected fourth-quarter comeback. For two weeks following the loss by the LA Rams, death rates of Los Angeles residents surged by 27 percent for women and 15 percent for men. These death rates were compared against annually-adjusted death rates in 1981, 1982 and 1983. The study also showed that there was a significant increase in death rates for men and women over age 65.

In 1984, things changed. In that year, the LA Raiders delivered a blow to the Washington Redskins, leading the City of Angels to victory. For the two weeks following the game, cardiovascular deaths didn't increase in the city: In fact, there was a slight decrease in death rates for people over the age of 65 and women.

Robert Kloner is a cardiology professor at the Keck School of Medicine (USC) As head researcher on the study, Kloner helped develop the methodology behind the project. In the study, he said, "Fans develop an emotional connection to their team ... and when their team loses, that's an emotional stress." He continued, "There's a brain-heart connection, and it is important for people to be aware of that."

In the study, researchers note that the Super Bowl in 1980 was a particularly emotional event for participants. In the game, the Steelers and the LA Rams kept vying for the lead. As each team grabbed the lead for a transient moment, emotions would run high for fans. Fans would travel through rapid cycles of euphoria, frustration, anger and joy. May sound familiar if your recall the recent roller coaster experience during the battle between the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos divisional playoff game on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, won by the Ravens in overtime.

It's all about the brain-heart connection. In 1984, things were different for LA. Emotions were much lower during this game, for a variety of reasons. Unlike the LA Rams in 1980, the LA Raiders in 1984 were newcomers to the city. Many fans didn't have the same emotional connection with the LA Raiders as they had with the LA Rams. In addition, the game was held thousands of miles away in Florida. While LA residents could watch the game on their television, there wasn't the same visceral connection that one may feel in a home game.

This phenomenon isn't limited to football, however. A 2008 study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that heart attacks among German men spiked during the 2006 soccer World Cup when the German team was on the field.

So this Sunday when you are cheering for your favorite team, remember that while a Super Bowl victory is a fantastic event, it's important to stay cool!. Breathe. Pause. Be mindful if you take the game to heart. Remember that maintaining good health is a victory in itself.

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