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Is the World Cup bad for you?

Research suggests watching the soccer tournament may be hazardous to your health

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / May 21, 2010

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I wonder if now is the moment to tell my editors that my next 12 columns will all be about the World Cup soccer tournament, which starts early next month in South Africa. I suppose they will find out sooner or later.

Today: The disturbing public health angle.

Where were you in January 2008? I know where I was; pawing through the New England Journal of Medicine’s disturbing overview “Cardiovascular Events During World Cup Soccer.’’ A team of no fewer than 11 German health professionals — the same number as on a soccer side — analyzed acute cardiac events in Munich during the five weeks of the 2006 World Cup, held in Germany.

Their conclusion: World Cup bad for you! “Viewing a stressful soccer match more than doubles the risk of an acute cardiovascular event,’’ Ute, Helmut, Christoph, Gerhard & Co. wrote. “In view of this excess risk, particularly in men with known coronary heart disease, preventive measures are urgently needed.’’

I’ll spare you most of the jargon (“An autocorrelation of the Pearson residuals and a fitted quasi-Poisson regression analysis involving an additional overdispersion parameter . . .’’) to get to the point. The docs realized that as the German national team progressed ever-closer to the final round, its fans experienced ever-greater levels of stress. The final two games, a lucky win against Argentina, and Germany’s elimination by Italy, the eventual tournament victor, were almost too much to bear: “It is clear that watching an important soccer match, which can be associated with intense emotional stress, triggers the acute coronary syndrome and symptomatic cardiac arrhythmia.’’

And I thought Germans were tough. Guess not. If they had to watch Paul Pierce drive the lane, take a rib jab from Jameer Nelson, a hard foul across the throat from Dwight Howard, sink the basket and convert the three-point play . . . I guess das Volk would just lie down and expire.

You thought perhaps this masterwork of epidemiological research would go unchallenged? You would be wrong. Two Italian physicians from the University of Verona fired off a letter to the NEJM suggesting that if the Germans laid off the knockwurst, the spaetzle, the sauerkraut, and the foaming steins of Kaiserdom beer, they might be able to survive 90 minutes of World Cup.

“Central European foods . . . are commonplace among people who are watching sports on television,’’ write Drs. Lippi and Targher, who add that “a large body of epidemiologic evidence attests that these foods can trigger postprandial angina pectoris and acute coronary syndromes, especially . . . when accompanied by stress, physical inactivity, alcohol consumption (especially binge drinking), consumption of coffee, and smoking.’’ Might we suggest a Mediterranean diet, esteemed residents of Munich?

Earlier this year, four more Italian medical geniuses tossed in their 500 lire — sorry, two euros — with a scholarly article in the International Journal of Epidemiology titled “It is just a game: lack of association between watching football [soccer] matches and the risk of acute cardiovascular events.’’ The Italian docs note the Germans’ World Cup-related faintheartedness, and then state: No problem here! They analyze Italian hospital admissions during the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, and conclude: “The cardiovascular effects of watching football matches are likely to be, if anything, very small.’’

Easy for them to say, as the wondrous Azzurri, the Italian blues, cruised to World Cup triumph in 2006.

Ute Wilbert-Lampen, one of the German authors of the original NEJM study, agreed to answer a few questions via e-mail. What “preventive measures,’’ I asked, might reduce cardiac stress at World Cup time? She told me that cardiac patients should be scrupulous about taking their drugs, and that fans “should avoid heavy alcohol and food.’’

What about those laid-back Italian researchers, invoking NPR host Bill Littlefield’s mantra that “it’s only a game’’? “We do not agree with Francesco Barone-Adesi and colleagues that ‘it is just a game,’ ’’ Wilbert-Lampen answered. Lastly I asked: Is World Cup watching dangerous only for cholesterol-crazed Germans? “We believe that our findings are not specific to Germany,’’ she wrote. “Great and important sport events in other countries may also lead to an extraordinary emotional strain with subsequent cardiovascular events, particularly in cardiovascular high-risk patients.’’

Celtics-Magic tomorrow night. Do you have the heart to watch?

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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