Skip to main content

Death by Touchdown?

Football Fan

The stakes couldn't be much higher for the nationally ranked Utah football team. The Utes remain undefeated, and loyal fans are living and dying on every play. Speaking of the heart-stopping drama to come… can your heart really stop while watching your favorite team vie for glory?

Can Stress Cause a Heart Attack?

"It's more common than people anticipate," said John Ryan, MD, a cardiologist with University of Utah Health. "The most famous example is the World Cup in Germany in 2006."

As the host country, Germany faced big-time pressure to succeed — and devoted fans felt it too as many suffered heart attacks during or shortly after suspenseful matches. A 2008 study led by a researcher named— get this! — Ute Wilbert-Lampen, M.D., found that the incidence of cardiac events in men more than tripled on days when the German team played. Women got carried away in the moment as well, as their numbers nearly doubled on game days.

Risk Factors of a Heart Attack

"I think there are a couple of things that are playing a role here," Ryan said. "First you've got the emotional rollercoaster ride of the game, and then typically during sporting events you tend to drink more and not eat as well. You can get dehydrated after a long day of tailgating, and rising temperatures and being in a crowded arena can increase your risk."

If you've got a long day of superfandom ahead, bring water, get a good night's sleep, and avoid overdrinking or smoking, especially if you're older, overweight, or if you smoke or have high blood pressure.

But what if you're doing everything right healthwise and you still feel like your heart might seize as you watch your Utes attempt a last-minute goal-line stand that could spell victory or defeat?

Find coping mechanisms to deal with the stress that work for you," Ryan said. "When Ireland is playing in rugby games, my father will sit out in the garden until the game is over, and then we tell him what the result was.

Now that's a true fan.

Utah's Cardiac Kids

As for Utah fans, they're no strangers to chest-jolting moments. Last year the Utes had a reputation for being "cardiac kids" as three of their Pac-12 games extended to overtime, including two double-overtime nail-biters. Unbeaten and in the national spotlight so far this year, fans know how much is on the line this season.

"Just be aware of your increased risk," Ryan said. "If you start to notice symptoms that are consistent with heart attack — chest pain, sweatiness, nausea, vomiting, backaches, chest tightness, or if folks tell you that you don't look too good — take it seriously. If it's persistent, get evaluated."

And if you find that cardiac symptoms often accompany your sports viewing, you might want to take a page from Dr. Ryan's father's playbook. Your family can tell you how the big game turned out.