Football fans beware: The big game could take a toll on your heart

Football fans beware: The big game could take a toll on your heart

(CBS News) - Football frenzy grips the nation this weekend as fans cheer on their teams in the NFL Conference Championships. But could the excitement of those high-stakes match-ups actually have an impact on spectators' health?

Sure, the thrill of victory has its benefits. "There's a chance to create really good brain chemistry, get drenched with those rewarding brain chemicals if we become a fan and get into the collective sense of belonging and victory," psychologist Scott Bea told CBS Philly.

However, the emotional spikes can also pose potential hazards.

"People get very excited and there's a sudden elevation of adrenaline levels — we call them catecholamines [and] cortisol levels. And this increases stress on the heart, increases blood pressure [and] increases heart rate," Dr. Vincent Figueredo explained.

Last year, a small study of 20 people published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology found that the participants' pulses increased by 75 percent for those watching a hockey game on television and by 110 percent for those watching in person. That's equivalent to the heart rate response to vigorous exercise, the researchers note.

Figueredo, who is the chair of cardiology at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, points to previous studies that have documented an increase in heart-related events during big sporting events.

For example, a study published in The BMJ showed a spike in fatal heart attacks and strokes in the Dutch population on the day the national football team was eliminated from the 1996 European football championship.

In addition, studies have shown "increases in life-threatening arrhythmia, sudden death, as well as heart failure," Figueredo said.

In 2005, when the Philadelphia Eagles were in the Super Bowl, Figueredo said his hospital saw an increase in patients with heart issues.

"Most of these people have underlying factors already," he said. "They either have clinical coronary artery disease or a weak heart."

In addition, the salty, fattening foods that often accompany football games and too much alcohol can also increase visits to the emergency department.

"If people don't eat too much, don't drink too much and don't take it too seriously but enjoy the game, then I think they can avoid coming to visit us," Figueredo said.

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