For many soccer fans, passions run high and close matches can evoke strong emotion stress. Past research has hinted at a relationship between the stress of watching sporting events and health problems. However, until now, there has been limited evidence showing a definitive link. In an article appearing in the January 31, 2008 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers at the Munich University Clinic show that watching competitive soccer matches may lead to significant health emergencies in ardent fans.
A German research team, lead by Dr. Ute Wilbert-Lambert, examined at 4,279 medical reports from clinics in the Munich area. The reports were obtained from the seven days the German team played, the 24 days when matches involved teams from other countries, and 242 other days in 2003, 2005 and 2006. The investigators recorded events such as heart attacks and arrhythmias that required emergency medical care.
The overall results are shown in the figure. During the World Cup, the days involving the German national team saw the incidence of cardiac emergencies increase by 2.7 fold. For men, the occurrence was increased 3.3 times and 1.8 times for women. The highest incidence of events occurred during the first two hours after the start of the match. The authors stated, “Of prime importance for triggering a stress-induced event is not the outcome of a game - a win or a loss - but rather the intense strain and excitement experience during the viewing of a dramatic match, such as one with a penalty shoot-out''. The matches with the highest incidences of heart emergencies were the Germany-Argentina match that ended with Germany winning in a PK shootout and the Germany-Italy match, a close match that Germany eventually lost (peaks 5 & 6 in the figure). On those days, there were nearly 65 emergency rooms visits. In the Munich area, there are, on average, about 15 emergency room visits per day for cardiovascular problems. On the other hand, the third place match between Germany and Portugal showed little or no increase in cardiovascular emergencies, a match won by the host team.
The researchers conclude that viewing a stressful soccer match can more than double the risk of an acute cardiovascular event. It should also be pointed out that there may be factors other than emotional stress that contribute to acute heart problems. Factors such as overeating, consumption of junk food, alcohol and smoking during the match can also place a strain on the heart. Nevertheless, it is clear that passionate fans, especially those with a history of heart problems, are at risk when watching competitive matches. Clearly the best advice for those fans is to watch calmly, don’t drink and limit the amount of junk food.
Wilbert-Lampen U et al. (2008) Cardiovascular events during World Cup soccer. N Engl J Med, 358:475-483