Is Watching the Super Bowl Worth Your Life?

Alcohol, excitement, stress, prolonged sitting, and fatty foods combine to create an unwholesome atmosphere like no other.

This article originally appeared in the Newton blog on RealClearScience. You can read the original here


Dr. Jeffrey Kalina, the Associate Medical Director at Houston's Methodist Hospital, enjoys the Super Bowl. The ensuing hours after the final whistle? Not so much.

"Quite frankly, we just dread the hours after the game," he told ESPN.

Kalina has some crazy stories.

"I saw a guy with several broken teeth. He was opening beer bottles with them. He didn't do so well," Kalina recalled.

There's no denying it, the Super Bowl can be quite hazardous to your health. Alcohol, excitement, stress, prolonged sitting, and fatty foods combine to create an unwholesome atmosphere like no other. (And it sure is a blast!)

For those at risk for heart disease, the situation is especially injurious. It's well known that emotional stress can acutely predispose us to heart attacks. Paired with fatty foods like cheese, pizza, and buffalo wings, the stress of the Super Bowl packs a perilous wallop.

"One high-fat meal can cause your blood to be more likely to clot," Cleveland Clinic cardiologist David Frid told CNN.

Skeptical? The dangers are real. In 2009, researchers pulled death records in Los Angeles County for the two weeks following the Los Angeles Ram's Super Bowl loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, a game in which they blew a fourth-quarter lead. Comparing the data to that of control days -- from January 15 to the end of February for 1980 to 1983 and 1984 to 1988 -- the researchers found that heart-related deaths skyrocketed 15% among men and 27% among women.

"The emotional stress of a loss and/or the intensity of a game played by a sports team in a highly publicized rivalry such as the Super Bowl can trigger... cardiovascular deaths," the researchers concluded.

Los Angelenos aren't the only ones adversely affected by the big game. In a similarly designed study released last November, researchers analyzed death rates in Massachusetts eight days after the New England Patriots' heartbreaking Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. Circulatory deaths increased by 20% and ischemic heart disease deaths increased by 24%. Cardiovascular death rates also increased in Arizona following the Cardinals' loss to the Steelers in 2009, but the trend was not significant. Humorously, the researchers basically chalked the null result up to Cardinals fans being less ardent.

"Massachusetts and Pittsburgh show stronger support for their home teams compared with Arizona," they noted.

Right now, you may be wondering if the gluttony and exhilaration of Super Bowl Sunday is worth your life. Don't be ashamed to answer "yes."

"Watching sports can stress the heart. But that doesn't mean you need to stop," says Harvard Medical School's Thomas Lee. Just make sure to take any prescribed medications as usual, go easy on the salty food and alcohol, and don't wait till the end of the drive -- or worse, the end of the game -- if you feel any symptoms of heart attack, such as chest pressure, shortness of breath, or lightheadedness, he advises.

Most importantly, Lee urges, if you ever feel upset that your team is losing or has already lost, "close your eyes, breathe slowly, and say over and over, 'Wait till next year. Wait till next year.'"

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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