For the next month, the world’s attention (and mine) will be focused on South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. Though it’s just starting to break through the public consciousness in the States, the World Cup is such a massive cultural force in the rest of the world that its tremors are felt even in scientific circles. A recent psychology study on how to take the best penalty kick got a lot of media play this week, and at least two different economists developed models to predict the winner via a country’s GDP and other factors (both picked Brazil).
I jumped into PubMed to see what other World Cup-related research could be found, and it turned out the water there was very deep. Since the last World Cup in 1996, dozens of scientific and medical articles have been published, ranging from editorials advising fans about potential diseases they need to be immunized against in South Africa to surveys of injuries suffered by referees during the tournament. But one topic appeared to drive much of the World Cup-related scientific debate, and it explains just how seriously the competition is taken around the world: does watching important World Cup games cause heart attacks?
The controversy started with a 2008 New England Journal of Medicine article called “Cardiovascular Events During World Cup Soccer.” A team of German researchers looked at emergency medicine records from June 9 to July 9, 2006, when the last World Cup was taking place in Germany, and compared the period to two control months free from international tournaments. According to the authors, “six of the seven games in which the German team participated were associated with an increase in the number of cardiac emergencies,” averaging out to a 2.5-fold increase in heart attacks. People with a history of coronary artery disease had an even higher health risk of watching their countrymen on the pitch: a four times increase in events. Blog founding father Jeremy Manier wrote about the study for the Chicago Tribune, and related it to local stress about the Cubs and Bears.
But wait – a counter-attack was sprung this year by an Italian team of researchers, who focused upon their own population during not only the 2006 World Cup, but the 2002 event as well as the 2004 European Championships. Studying more than 25,000 hospital admissions, the authors failed to find any uptick in heart-related events, even when Italy’s national team defeated France in a tense penalty shootout to win the ’06 Cup (there was, however, at least one Italian with a chest injury that day). The Italian authors claim that their negative results are more in line with previous literature, including an English study that found only a small (but significant) increase in heart attacks and strokes during club soccer matches.
But those are mere club matches, several degrees less intense than a high-stakes international game. In the time-honored soccer journalism tradition of using stereotypes as commentary, I’m tempted to explain the differences with a broad brush – perhaps the more flamboyant Italians process emotion more heart-healthily than the reserved, efficient Germans? Or maybe the additional stress of wanting their team to win the World Cup at home exacerbated the heart problems of the Germans? Is it simply a matter of sausage?
Regardless, the whole debate is encapsulated nicely in a quote that leads off the English study linked above, from legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly:
“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
In other sports news, the blown umpiring call that corrupted the perfect game of Armando Galarraga last week makes great fodder for a post at Cortical Hemming and Hawing about a visual trick that plagues human sight called “the flash-lag illusion.” The article goes on to discuss how the illusion could similarly plague soccer linesman on off-side calls, adding to its sporting relevance.
A new study from the Autism Genome Project finds that the disease is even more complicated than previously thought, with dozens of different combinations of genes found in the study’s pool of 1000 patients. Intriguingly, a lot of the changes in autistic patients were due to copy number variations – that is, not the nature of the gene, but the number of times it is present in DNA. “Most individuals that have autism will have their own rare form,” said author Stephen Scherer, a geneticist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada. [Also: check out the sweet new Guardian story tracker, which aggregates insight, context and criticism from around the web on science stories.]
The week’s adventure in sensationalized science had an outer space setting. News outlets were falling over themselves to declare “Life on Titan” – Saturn’s most habitable moon – after a NASA study found strangely low amounts of hydrogen and acetylene on the moon’s surface. Phil Plait, Discover’s “Bad Astronomer,” sets the record straight – while it is an intriguing observation that *could* be explained by a methane-based lifeform, it’s galaxies away from direct evidence of alien life.