Watching football can damage your health

My second instalment from Physiology 2010.

At any large scientific meeting, with lots of things on at once, there are lectures that you feel you really have to go to, commonly because they are in your research area.

There are also lectures you look at and think you might go to.

For me, especially as I have got older and done more teaching, these latter ones are often lectures covering topics that I:

(i) have taught; or

(ii) teach; or finally

(iii) remember never understanding properly when they were taught to me.

Today (Wednesday) I was pondering whether to go to Professor Murray Esler’s Paton Lecture [1] on “The sympathetic nervous system through the ages”. The sympathetic nervous system falls into categories (ii) and (iii) above.

Anyway, I am glad I did decide to go along, because I learned a good deal that was new to me, including a load of things that I shall enjoy passing on to the students in years to come. For instance, did you know that Sir Christopher Wren was briefly a neuroanatomist [2]? I certainly didn’t. Of course, Wren soon found something else to do with his time.

Esler’s main theme was the role of the sympathetic nervous system in controlling the cardiovascular system. The most fascinating bit for me was when he dealt with “psychogenic” heart problems. There are many stories of people getting so stressed that they keel over with a heart attack, but Esler told us that hard evidence on such “psychogenic cardiac events” has been lacking until recently.

However, there is now good evidence, he told us, that fear and stress really can increase your risk of a serious acute heart problem.

One example – the one I started with an allusion to – was watching a crucial football match.

The study Esler cited in particular was this one from the New England Journal of Medicine. It looked at the rate of cardiac events – heart attacks, severe angina or dangerous cardiac arrhythmias – in German men attending hospital ERs/ A&E departments in the greater Munich area during the 2006 World Cup. Germany, the host nation, got as far as the semi-finals of the tournament where they were eliminated by Italy, the eventual winners, 2-0 after extra time.

Wilbert-Lampen et al Fig 1

[EDIT: The link to the Figure has gone dead. If you have access to the paper here, click Figure 1 to enlarge it]

Here is the key figure in the paper, which Esler showed us. The number of cardiac events is plotted against the date, with the years 2003 and 2005 shown as controls. Peaks 5 and 6 in the plot for 2006 are the days of Germany’s quarter-final with Argentina, which they won after extra time and a penalty shoot-out, and the semi-final with Italy. In the latter game Italy did not score until the 29th minute of extra time, after almost two hours of football. The authors also stated in the paper that most of the cardiac events occurred within two hours of the kick-off of the games.

So like I said – watching football can damage your health.

And should your team still be in the World Cup – especially if you are a middle aged male – try not to get too worked up on game days.


PS In case you were wondering what happened to peak 7, which is down in the noise, it represents the day of the 3rd place play-off between the losing semi-finalists, Germany and Portugal. Most armchair football fans would tell you that no-one, apart from the players, really cares who wins the 3rd place play-off.


1. The Paton lectures are named for Sir William Paton, long-time Professor of Pharmacology in Oxford, who you can read about here (with an interesting postscript here).

2. Wren was for a time an Oxford University colleague of the noted physician and pioneering neuroanatomist Thomas Willis.

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
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13 Responses to Watching football can damage your health

  1. Brian Derby says:

    Austin – Your comments about talks at conferences strike a chord. The comments on football being bad for your health reminded me of a story from my youth of a man who literally died lauighing – here is an account copied from the Wikipedia page on the series resposible: “The Goodies”:
    On 24 March 1975 Alex Mitchell, a 50-year-old bricklayer from King’s Lynn literally died laughing while watching an episode of The Goodies. According to his wife, who was a witness, Mitchell was unable to stop laughing whilst watching a sketch in the episode “Kung Fu Kapers” in which Tim Brooke-Taylor, dressed as a kilted Scotsman, used a set of bagpipes to defend himself from a black pudding-wielding Bill Oddie (master of the ancient Lancastrian martial art “Ecky-Thump”) in a demonstration of the Scottish martial art of “Hoots-Toot-ochaye.” After twenty-five minutes of continuous laughter Mitchell finally slumped on the settee and died from heart failure. His widow later sent the Goodies a letter thanking them for making Mitchell’s final moments so pleasant.
    Is this another hazard with epidemiologial evidence?

  2. Stephen Curry says:

    The England team did us all a favour then…? 😉

  3. Brian Derby says:

    Stephen – As you were born in N. Ireland you should be immune from any effect on the English team. Anyway, as you survived the Henry Handball stress point your consistution must be sufficiently strong.

  4. Stephen Moss says:

    It would be interesting to see a similar study for, lets say, English men in the London area. One might hypothesise that here the ‘football’ effect would be less marked, because whilst supporters of Germany have legitimate expectations that their team will win the world cup (and would therefore be deeply anxious about their progress in the competition), England fans in the higher risk age group (like myself) are sanguine in the knowledge that elimination in the early rounds is a virtual certainty. The stress that would undoubtedly accompany having to watch England actually playing in a major final, is something we are unlikely to ever experience.

  5. Stephen Curry says:

    @Brian – Wife and kids are English and this is my adopted country so I am not without some sentiment for the team (though they did their best to get me to dis-engage…).
    As regards the Henry incident that feels much better now after French self-destructed…

  6. Nicolas Fanget says:

    I am so glad the French team left so early, although it was death from embarrassment rather than cardiac arrest I was more worried about!
    About the confs, what I hate(d) is when two talks that you absolutely want to hear are at the same time. I strongly believe all confs should make slides and/or video/audio available for this reason alone!

  7. Richard P. Grant says:

    I’d just like to say,

  8. Mike Fowler says:

    As a Scot, I have nought to say about the football itself this summer, but I will point out that beer consumption might be a contributing factor to poor health amongst German men. Especially during major football tournaments held in your own country. Did they mention whether there was a tee-total control group?
    {mutter, mutter, correlation, causation, bloody medical doctors}

  9. Mike Fowler says:

    Oh – and they (conveniently?) skippped the data for the Euro 2004 event, where Germany were put out of the competition at the end of the group stages…

  10. Kristi Vogel says:

    _His widow later sent the Goodies a letter thanking them for making Mitchell’s final moments so pleasant_
    In the US, that would have been a lawsuit or three. Not kidding, unfortunately.
    I inherited two lectures on autonomic nervous system this year, so I’ll definitely make use of that cardiac event data next go round. Thanks for posting about it, Austin! Development and trophic interactions in the avian and mammalian sympathetic nervous systems aren’t particularly relevant to the medical neuroscience course (although they are my graduate background and subjects of several of my pubs, as well as a more recent collaboration that I’m hoping to write up soon). I inherited the lectures at the last moment this spring, so I had to stick with what was in the syllabus … _lots_ of pharmacology, which they’ll get again (and better) in a full-blown pharmacology course in their second year. Next time, I’ll add neuroblastoma, pheochromocytoma, and perhaps familial dysautonomia. Much more comfortable pontificating about the first two, and neuroblastoma is a major pediatric tumor about which the students should know something, I think.

  11. Austin Elliott says:

    Many thanks all for the comments – haven’t responded as have been at the meeting and just now penning another entry.
    Will hopefully respond late tonight, post-dinner sobriety permitting.
    Off now to see Roger Tsien’s lecture.

  12. steffi suhr says:

    Hot weather, too – any results from today’s game against Argentina would have to be controlled for hot weather as well.
    Anyway, must get back to watching 🙂

  13. Cath Ennis says:

    I’ll be watching Sunday’s final with a Dutch friend whose grandfather died of a heart attack while actually at a game (his Dutch league team, not an international match). My friend cheerfully asserts that she will most likely go the same way. I’d say this is accurate – during one of Holland’s games during the last world cup, she got so stressed she had to leave the house with 20 minutes left to pace up and down in the garden. We had to shout through the window to tell her what was happening.

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