Here's a good way to get sick: At the height of flu season, go to an enclosed place with lots of people, none of whom are paying attention to all the guacamole being double dipped and sneezed on. In other words, go a Super Bowl party. And in case you think that's a joke, well, it's not. According to new research, there's an 18 percent increase in flu deaths when the home team is playing in the Super Bowl.
"We find large, robust impacts of team Super Bowl participation on local influenza mortality," Charles Stoecker, Nicholas Sanders, and Alan Barreca write in the American Journal of Health Economics, along with the suggestion of similar effects in playoff games as well. The researchers arrived at that conclusion by first combining a variety of data sets, including the National Center for Health Statistics' Multiple Cause of Death Files from 1974 to 2009 and, of course, the date and location of every championship game since the Miami Dolphins were good. The researchers also gathered weather data, local health and demographic data, and more to control for other influences on influenza deaths.
There's an 18 percent increase in flu deaths when the home team is playing in the Super Bowl.
Once Stoecker, Sanders, and Barreca put all that data together, it was relatively straightforward to see what effect the Super Bowl has on health. Before getting to the main event, however, the researchers asked a different question: Did flu deaths go up in the Super Bowl host city? In short, no—so that's something 2016 Super Bowl host San Francisco—or rather, San Jose—can take to heart.
But if your team is playing in the Super Bowl, you might be in trouble. (This year, that means Charlotte and Denver, but not San Francisco.) For the years in question, there were an average of 5.6 flu deaths per year, and about 40 deaths per million in people over 65, though both numbers vary a lot year to year. If your team is in the Super Bowl, however, you can expect an extra death per million people, the team found, and an extra 7.3 deaths per million in people over 65—both 18 percent increases over the average.
Those effects are even more pronounced if the game is held within three weeks of peak influenza infection rates, when the year's dominant flu strain is H3N2 or H2N2. The researchers found a similar though smaller effect for towns whose National Football League teams made it into the playoffs.
By design, the study can't say exactly why there's such a pronounced increase in flu deaths as a result of a football game—for one thing, nobody's keeping track of every bowl of salsa or ranch dressing at every party on Super Bowl Sunday—but there's at least one pretty obvious possibility: Spending lots of time in close quarters with others who might be sick, whether at a party or in an airplane heading to the game, is dangerous.
One solution, the researchers suggest: Wash your hands, football fans.
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