Heart Attacks in Extra Time Watching Football Is Hazardous to Your Health

Munich hospitals were fuller than usual during the 2006 World Cup. The reason? Passionate football fans were having an alarming number of heart attacks. A new study says it's all part of being a fan.

Have heart troubles? Then you might want to skip watching the Super Bowl this Sunday. And if your team is playing in the upcoming European Championship soccer tournament, then you might consider kicking in your television set even before your favorite player makes an own goal.

That, at least, seems to be the implication of a new study carried out by researchers at the Munich University Clinic. According to the team's research, published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, cardiac emergencies and heart attacks more than doubled in Munich when Germany took the field in the 2006 World Cup tournament. Among those with a history of heart problems, the risks of watching tense sporting events are even higher.

"The more important the game, the greater the risk," Dr. Ute Wilbert-Lampen, one of the study's lead authors, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "There is also a direct correlation between the tension in the game and the amount of stress one feels -- and thus the strain on the heart."

Wilbert-Lampen and her team looked at 4,279 heart cases that occurred in the greater Munich area during World Cup games that Germany was playing in. They then compared that period to similar periods of time in 2003 and 2005. The results were clear: Men's risk of having heart problems while watching their team play was fully 3.26 times higher than normal; for women it was 1.82 times higher. Those with a history of heart trouble were even more at risk.

Narrowing the cause down even further, the study found that emergency rooms experienced no spike in numbers of patients during games not involving the Germans.

Wilbert-Lampen points to specific games during the tournament to back up her theory that football-related stress is to blame for the up-tick in ticker malfunctions. She says that during Germany's second round match against Argentina, which the Germans won only after extra time and a penalty shootout, hospitals were flooded with heart patients. The same happened when Germany played Italy -- a close game which the Germans eventually lost.

But when the German team played Ecuador, the team had already qualified for the next round and there were relatively few heart issues. "The result is not important," Wilbert-Lampen says. "Rather, the vital factor is how stressful and tense the match is."

Past research has hinted at such a correlation, but until now, studies had been based on a single game and results had been inconsistent. But now that the verdict is in, the Munich clinic wants to dig deeper and find out if there are differences between heart attacks caused by stress and those resulting from other causes.

The study also showed that serious fans made things worse on themselves by ignoring serious symptoms during the game. Waiting till the final whistle to drive to the hospital, Wilbert-Lampen suggests, is a good way to extend injury time indefinitely.

What, though, is a sports fan to do? For one, says Wilbert-Lampen, cut down on other things already known to cause heart disease -- things like eating chips, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes in front of the television. "And if you notice that something is happening to your heart during the game, then you should turn off the television and head to the hospital. That is the message."

The Munich team also recommends a visit to the doctor to see if your ticker can handle the stress of a big game. And they expect that on Super Bowl Sunday this weekend, the hospitals in New England might be more full than usual. "You can expect heart problems will rise by quite a bit during these tense sporting events," Wilbert-Lampen says.