The link between Super Bowls and heart failure is usually written in guacamole and beer. But we are a social species, whose feelings about group identity have a direct impact on health, via the brain-body connection. Hence this study in this month’s Clinical Cardiology, which says death rates in Los Angeles spiked upward because the city’s team lost the Super Bowl in 1980—and dipped down after L.A.’s Super Bowl win four years later.
Robert A. Kloner and his co-authors used winter death records from Los Angeles County in the 1980s to establish a non-Super-Bowl death rates, and compared them to rates after the L.A. Rams lost the big game in 1980 and won it in 1984.
Deaths due to all causes were higher than expected after the loss, they found. Heart-related deaths also followed this pattern. After the win, some death rates were lower than expected, but, weirdly enough, this was statistically significant only for women. “A Super Bowl loss triggered increased deaths in both men and women and especially in older patients,” the authors write. And this was in Los Angeles. As Matt Kiebus points out, fandom there hasn’t been robust enough to sustain an NFL team since 1994. Many more hearts could be beating close to death in Pittsburgh.
Like most primates, people are intensely group-oriented and intensely sensitive to hierarchy, so the effects of feeling that “we’re number 1!” are deep and wide (and so too for the effects of feeling that “we aren’t number 1!”). Unlike most primates, though, we have a vast range of freedom to choose our groups, and if one of your chosen groups is sports fandom, your mind and body seem to react as intensely as they would to a war or a family feud.
There’s good evidence, for instance, that fans’ testosterone levels go up with their teams’ wins and down with losses. But the connections aren’t simple, and they depend on thoughts and emotions as well as scores. This study, for instance, found that fans’ testosterone didn’t go up if they thought their team’s victory was fluke. Similarly, Daniel I. Rees of the University of Colorado found that assaults and other mayhem increase the most after college football games whose results are an upset. It didn’t matter whether, for the home team, that upset was a surprise loss or a surprise win, Rees found (pdf). If the “wrong” team won, assaults went up around the campus where the game was played. It’s hard to see a straight line from Super Bowl disappointment to an early grave, then. But it’s also hard to claim there’s no connection.
Kloner, R., McDonald, S., Leeka, J., & Poole, W. (2011). Role of Age, Sex, and Race on Cardiac and Total Mortality Associated With Super Bowl Wins and Losses Clinical Cardiology DOI: 10.1002/clc.20876