It was all over the news a few years ago: studies showed an increase in heart attacks and heart arrhythmias during sporting events such as the Super Bowl, World Series and World Cup.
A report from the American Heart Association explained that watching a nail-biter game between rivals could cause emotional stress, which is one of the triggers of cardiovascular events. “You essentially get a fight-or-flight response,” explained USC professor Dr. Robert Kroner. “What happens? The sympathetic nervous system gets stimulated and there’s a release of catecholamines (hormones), like adrenaline. Heart rate and blood pressure go up. The contractility of the heart goes up.”
After these studies came out, there was some disagreement among experts, in part because the studies relied solely on the interpretation of data. So researchers from the University of Montreal devised a study to actually measure the pulse of people watching a sports event. It being Canada, they chose hockey fans for their test subjects.
The results of the study, published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, showed that Montreal Canadiens fans who attended a game at the arena had a 110% increase in heart rate. Even those watching the match on TV experienced a heart rate increase of 75%.
One interesting finding: the researchers had theorized that the most heart-pounding moments would be at the end of a game, but that only turned out to be the case if the game went into overtime or was close. Other high-stakes moments, such as a scoring opportunity, also really got the fans’ hearts going. (No, despite the reputation of hockey, fans didn’t experience as much effect during fights.)
A study published in the American Journal of Medicine, titled “Sporting Events Affect Spectators’ Cardiovascular Mortality: It’s Not Just a Game” noted that the overall danger is highest for sports fans who are already suffering from coronary artery disease. Said the study authors, “Physiologic and clinical triggers, including mental stress, anxiety, and anger, often precipitate acute myocardial infarction and cardiovascular death.”
None of the study authors suggested that fans give up their beloved sports events. But they suggest that heart patients discuss their sports stress level with their doctor. Awareness is key. Said the University of Montreal study authors, “At-risk patients should be warned about potential cardiovascular symptoms and should be instructed to seek medical attention promptly if symptoms develop.”
Sports fans can also make lifestyle changes that lower their overall risk, such as eating healthier snacks during those games, and going for a walk afterwards. Aim for a balance between spectator sports and physical activity of your own!
The Canadian researchers couldn’t help but rib their local teams, saying in conclusion that a Stanley Cup for either the Montreal Canadiens or the Toronto Maples Leafs would probably result in some cardiac events for fans. “Unfortunately,” they noted, “that risk does not seem imminent. In fact, no Canadian-based team has won the Stanley Cup since 1993. Despite this sad circumstance, we should continue to work hard to reduce the CV risk of our patients who are fans (and nonfans too).” With hockey season underway, Blackhawks fans take note!
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. Discuss heart health, your own risk factors and disease management with your doctor.
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