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Add flu to the health risks for fans of Super Bowl teams

Maybe it’s a good thing that the Minnesota Vikings didn’t make it to Super Bowl 50. For, according to some research, having a team in the Super Bowl poses certain health risks for fans — especially if the team loses.

For example, the findings from one study suggest (although not without controversy) that deaths from heart attacks are higher-than-normal for up to two weeks in cities after their teams lose Super Bowl games, particularly if the games were close and highly charged.

Another study found that both fatal and nonfatal automobile accidents increase by more than 40 percent across the country in the hours right after the telecast of Super Bowl games when compared to similar time frames on the Sundays before and after the games.

The increase in accidents was observed to be particularly high (68 percent) in states whose teams lost.

But now there’s yet another health risk for fans of Super Bowl teams to worry about: influenza. A study recently published in the American Journal of Health Economics reports that flu-related deaths among older people jumps significantly in the hometowns of Super Bowl teams.

Although in this case, the risk isn’t any different if your team wins or loses the game.

Three decades of data

For the study, researchers from Tulane and Cornell universities analyzed flu-related death rates collected by federal health officials between 1974 and 2009.

The data revealed that during winters when counties had teams in the Super Bowl, those counties experienced an 18 percent rise in flu-related deaths among people aged 65 and older, the age group most vulnerable to complications from the illness.

That’s an 18 percent increase in relative risk. The researchers also explain the risk this way: “Sending a team to the Super Bowl leads to an additional seven reported influenza deaths per million for those aged 65 and older in the home county.”

“Super Bowl and the flu” video by Tulane University

The increase was most pronounced in years when the flu strain was particularly potent — or when the date of the Super Bowl was near the peak of the flu season.

Interestingly, the study found no increase in flu-related deaths in the cities that have hosted the Super Bowl during the past 36 years.

The researchers attribute that finding to the fact that — with the exception of Minneapolis (1992) and Detroit (1982) — host cities have all been in southern or southwestern states, where the climates are warmer and more humid and, thus, serve as a barrier to spreading the influenza virus. 

Mingling and mixing

What is the most likely cause of the spike in flu deaths observed in this study? The social mingling that goes on at Super Bowl parties, say the researchers.

Such parties are, of course, much more common in cities whose teams are in the game.

“It’s people that are staying at home and hosting small local gatherings — so, your Super Bowl party — that are actually passing influenza among themselves,” says the study’s lead author, Charles Stoecker of the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, in a released video.

“It changes mixing patterns,” he adds. “You are coughing and sneezing and, say, sharing chips and dip with people that you often don’t, so we get the influenza transmitted in novel ways that’s then going to eventually wind up in the lungs of a 65-year-old.”

Prevention tips

Unfortunately, the flu virus is easily transmitted through the air — and at distances of up to 6 feet — whenever an infected person sneezes, coughs or even talks. That can make it difficult to avoid at crowded social gatherings like Super Bowl parties.

If you’re going to such an event this weekend, the best ways to prevent becoming infected with the influenza virus is to avoid sharing food and drinks and to wash your hands frequently with soap and water, especially after you’ve touched any kind of surface that might be contaminated with germs.

And if you suspect you’re already infected with some kind of nasty virus, do everyone a favor. Stay home.

FMI: The study appears in the winter 2016 issue of American Journal of Health Economics, and can be read in full at that publication’s website.

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