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Some call this “Heart Attack Sunday”

Whether you’re rooting for the Eagles or Patriots, or you just like to go a little crazy with friends and watch all the commercials, Sunday’s Super Bowl is a big event. You’re probably planning to get together with friends, drink a few beers and eat some less-than-healthy foods like Buffalo wings, pizza or dips. But here’s one thing you’re probably not planning on: a heart attack

Research suggests that big, sometimes-stressful sporting events can lead to spikes in your heart rate and, in some cases, a heart attack.

“The excitement and stress of watching a big game, coupled with eating lots of food and drinking alcohol, can trigger sudden cardiac events such as an irregular heartbeat or a heart attack,” explained Geisinger cardiologist Dr. Stephen Voyce.

A study published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology found that fans watching a professional hockey game from home saw their heart rates increase by 75 percent (fans watching the game in person saw even bigger spikes—up to 110 percent). 

A similar study in the New England Journal of Medicine examined German soccer fans during the World Cup and found that watching a stressful soccer game more than doubled the risk of heart trouble, such as a heart attack or cardiac arrest.

“Any time you overexert yourself physically, feel a rush of adrenaline or undue emotional strain, you put stress on your cardiovascular system and increase your risk of a heart attack or another cardiac event,” said Dr. Voyce. 

A few beers and those not-so-healthy fried foods may also contribute to heart problems. Eating a “heavy” meal can trigger a heart attack for up to 26 hours after the meal, according to research. It may be due to an increase in hormone levels, which can increase blood pressure and heart rate, or an increase in fat, which prevents arteries from functioning normally. 

“The risk of a heart attack thanks to stress or eating a heavy meal is greater for people who already have an underlying heart condition, such as coronary artery disease or heart failure, or if they are overweight or obese, smoke, have diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure,” noted Dr. Voyce. 

So, how do you avoid chest pain or a trip to the ER this Sunday? 

First, try to avoid eating that “heavy meal.” Eat a healthy lunch so you’re not famished when the spinach dip comes out, and try making healthier game-day food choices. Try grilled wings instead of fried ones, avoid creamy dips, eat baked chips rather than fried ones, and choose light beer.  If you are prone to fluid retention or high blood pressure, be cautious on how much salt you ingest

You should also try to manage your emotions during the game. If you notice your heart is racing, remove yourself from the situation temporarily. Try breathing exercises or taking a walk to relax. 

Finally, it’s important to recognize the signs of a heart attack. Be aware of feelings of lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting, pain and discomfort in the chest and arm, shortness of breath and pain in your jaw, neck or back.

“If your heart begins to race or if you notice chest pain and other signs of a heart attack, don’t wait it out until the end of the game—every minute matters,” said Dr. Voyce. “You should call 9-1-1 and get to an emergency room immediately.”

Stephen Voyce, MD, is a cardiologist and Chief of Cardiology at Geisinger Community Medical Center in Scranton. To schedule an appointment with a Geisinger cardiologist, please call 800-275-6401.

Fans gather and eat food to watch the game