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A Pittsburgh Steelers fan yells during the first half of the AFC Championship NFL football game against the New York Jets in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011.

Gene J. Puskar/The Associated Press/Gene J. Puskar/The Associated Press

A Super Bowl loss can be heartbreaking for fans - quite literally.

New research shows that cardiovascular deaths jumped 15 per cent in the hometown of the losing team in the days after the big game.

Conversely, cardiovascular deaths actually dropped slightly in the hometown of the team that won the coveted National Football League trophy, the study shows.

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Dr. Robert Kloner, director of research at the Heart Institute of Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles said the data suggest that "stressors such as intense sporting events may increase cardiac events in fans."

The study, published in Monday's edition of the medical journal Clinical Cardiology, is based on an examination of mortality rates in Los Angeles County, Calif., after the local team's 1980 Super Bowl loss and its 1984 Super Bowl victory.

On Jan. 20, 1980, the Los Angeles Rams played the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIV. The Steelers won 31-19 in the game played in Pasadena, Calif. Researchers found that, in the two weeks following the game, cardiac deaths increased 16 per cent in men and 30 per cent in women compared with earlier in January and later in February.

Among seniors, the cardiac death rates soared by 90 per cent in the days after the Super Bowl loss.

On Jan. 22, 1984, the Los Angeles Raiders played the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII. The Raiders won handily, 38-9, in the game played in Tampa.

In the 14-day period following the team's Super Bowl victory, cardiac deaths fell 2 per cent among men and 12 per cent among women.

The cardiac death rate among seniors fell by 49 per cent in that same period.

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Dr. Kloner said the notion that cardiac deaths spike in the wake of major sporting events is well-demonstrated in studies of soccer fans whose teams make the World Cup finals. He noted that while emotions are key, the exact mechanism on the heart is unknown.

In the European studies, however, cardiac deaths increased only in men. In the new research, the effect was actually more pronounced in women.

Dr. Kloner said it is not clear if that is because U.S. men and women are both emotionally engaged in the Super Bowl or if a "male's reaction to the Super Bowl loss adversely affected the emotional state of a female partner."

Dr. Kloner said that, in seniors, there is more underlying coronary artery disease, but little research on what actually triggers cardiac events such as heart attacks. He speculated that older people, because they have more plaque build-up in their arteries, may be more vulnerable to that plaque breaking away and causing a heart attack or stroke when they are hyper-stimulated, such as during an intense football game.

Beyond mere winning and losing, the researchers underscored that there were marked differences between the two games they studied.

The 1980 Super Bowl was a nail-biter, with seven lead changes before being decided late in the fourth quarter. The Rams were also a much-loved team playing in their home state.

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The 1984 Super Bowl, by contrast, was a blow-out with little drama. The Raiders were also a team that had relocated to Los Angeles from Oakland and had little emotional connection with the fans.

Dr. Kloner also offered up some advice for Super Bowl fans worried about the impact on their hearts. He said they should enjoy the game but tried to minimize additional cardiovascular stresses such as smoking and excessive consumption of food and alcohol.

He also urged those taking heart medications to be sure to take them in the days before and after game day and to take the occasional break during the Super Bowl for some "stress reduction exercises."

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More

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