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February 04. 2012 11:27PM

Doctors: Game day stress can hurt fans, too

PORTSMOUTH — It is no fiction that major sporting events such as the Super Bowl can lead to busy days in the office of Dr. Peter Dourdoufis, a cardiologist with Atlantic Cardiologists.

“I think holidays and any type of big event, including the Super Bowl, are busy days for us,” he said Friday.

It is the emotional stress of the day, the highs and lows and the personal attachment people make to their team winning or losing that can put one’s health at risk.

This stress activates the body’s sympathetic nervous system, Dourdoufis said, leading to adrenaline surges and sudden increases in heart rate and blood pressure. It can also activate the body’s clotting system. All of those elements lead to an increased risk of heart attack, particularly in people who are already at risk, Dourdoufis said, including smokers and people with a family history of heart disease.

But heart attacks are not the only health consequences that can be associated with a big national event, especially one so closely linked with excessive eating and alcohol.

Dr. Donavon Albertson, medical director of the emergency department at Portsmouth Regional Hospital, has been an emergency room physician in the city for more than 31 years. He said events such as Super Bowl Sunday or the World Series follow a predictable pattern.

During the game, there is generally a decrease in patient flow in emergency rooms in areas where there is a local interest in the game.

Afterward, there is a predictable increase in flow related to health problems that had been deferred or problems that arose with the general level of excess, Albertson said.

“For some reason, people feel you have to eat during the Super Bowl, and people will often drink during the Super Bowl. Those two areas of acute or immediate excess will obviously lead to the potential for any number of things, including dietary indiscretion side effects — cramping, abdominal pain, vomiting, acid reflux of the esophagus,” Albertson said.

He said excessive alcohol consumption leads to its own health risks, including accidental overdoses and cognitive impairment that leads to poor judgment.

“It becomes an excuse to magnify the bad choices that are made every day, which in turn, of course, leads to the long-term, augmented risk of heart disease and diabetes,” Albertson said.

The big game can also cause psychological health effects, said Joann Muldoon, director of behavioral health services at Portsmouth Regional Hospital, but primarily in people who are already prone to stress-related illnesses, including anxiety and depression, or lack good stress-management skills.

She said some people simply cannot handle the disappointment of their team losing, which can cause strong emotional reactions.

“I think when people feel the disappointment and the emotional reaction, it can be a mirror image of part of their own personal life because they personalize a sporting event so much and identify so much. If a team loses, it somehow manifests itself as a reflection back on them, and they are a failure,” Muldoon said.

Both Muldoon and Dourdoufis said the risk of health effects, psychological or physiological, has as much to do with a person’s response to stress as the stressor itself.

“Obviously, we tell people to avoid stress in general, but honestly, how do we all do that? So how you deal with stressors you are exposed to might be the better trick,” Dourdoufis said.

Albertson said it is certainly possible to enjoy the game and an evening with friends, food and drink without putting one’s health at risk.

“I think it is certainly reasonable to consider that there is a reason philosophers have said for millennia that ‘moderation is a reasonable virtue’ and there are a thousand practical reasons why that is so,” Albertson said. “The Super Bowl is simply an example of a situation where behavioral excess is allowed and even encouraged a bit.”

“I think it’s certainly possible to enjoy the game, enjoy some friends, enjoy moderation in food and drink, and obviously I think that is where the wisdom lies, somewhere in that word.”

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