Researchers have found that the dramatic shoot-out ending of England's 1998 World Cup soccer match against Argentina sparked a surge in hospital admissions for heart attacks.
England's loss that day on penalty kicks brought men, women, and children to tears -- and sent hospital admissions for heart attacks up 25 percent above normal. Including the day of the match and the following 48 hours, 55 extra infarctions occurred, according to the researchers, who published their findings in the Dec. 21-28 issue of British Medical Journal.
That number is "way beyond what you would expect" based on the same period the year before and the year after the game, said Dr. Shah Ebrahim, an epidemiologist at the University of Bristol and a co-author of the study.
Men were slightly more likely than women to be admitted for heart trouble, but each gender saw the spike. No other diagnosis saw a similar wave after the high-drama defeat, and the effect didn't occur after other matches.
The researchers didn't interview any patients and don't know for certain that their heart trouble was football fever, Ebrahim said. But 24 million of the 57 million people living in Great Britain in 1998 watched the England-Argentina match.
The study isn't the first to link soccer to heart trouble. Dutch scientists found that when their country's national team was bounced from the 1996 European Championships, deaths from heart attacks and strokes jumped 50 percent in men, though not in women.
A study of English soccer fans found that their blood pressure and heart rate rose as they watched a replay of the World Cup penalty kick. But that's not enough to kick off a heart attack, Ebrahim said. Instead, to suffer a stress-related attack a person must already have unhealthy arteries with plaques vulnerable to rupture.
Doctors once believed that increases in heart rate and blood pressure dislodged the lesion, creating a blockage that deprives heart muscle of blood and deadens the tissue. Now they've come to understand that stress sets off a cascade of hormones and inflammation that can also loosen the plaques.
Of course, spectator sports are far from the only sources of stress to aggravate a vulnerable artery. The 1989 San Francisco earthquake, for example, triggered a surge in heart attacks even among people not physically affected by the tremors. And while Iraq was launching Scud missiles against Israel during the Gulf war, the number of heart attacks more than doubled in Tel Aviv.
Dr. Richard Stein, chief of cardiology at Brooklyn Hospital, said healthy sports fans can endure even the bitterest defeats at the hands of their team's fiercest rivals without fearing a heart attack. But people with established cardiovascular disease, and those with risk factors for heart attacks, like smoking or diabetes, may want to stick to TV's "Animal Planet" instead.
"The best thing to do is go out and play some soccer, not watch it," Stein said.
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