Sex and Heart Attacks—What Are The Odds of Dying When You're Doing It?

Good news: The odds that sex will kill you by inducing sudden cardiac arrest are probably lower than 1 percent.

Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is similar to a heart attack, but the terms are not interchangeable because the physiology behind them isn’t the same. A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when blood flow to the heart gets cut off, starving it of its oxygen supply. SCA refers to when the heart itself stops beating and pumping blood to oxygenate other vital organs. Sudden cardiac death kills about 350,000 Americans each year. Existing research had linked sexual activity to heart attacks, and researchers wanted to test the prevalence of sex-induced SCAs.

RTR48XMB Dallas's Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in 2014. Jim Young/REUTERS

By looking at the instances of SCAs in the Oregon Sudden Unexpected Death Study (Oregon SUDS) database between 2002 and 2015, the researchers found that just 0.7 percent were recorded as having taken place during or within one hour of sexual activity. A paper detailing the research was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology and presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2017.

“People will ask their doctors if sex increases their risk of sudden death, and we’ve never had the answer,” said senior author Sumeet Chugh, an expert on sudden cardiac arrest with Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles, according to NBC. “Over the years we’ve had a fair bit of data on physical activity and how it’s related to sudden cardiac arrest, but no one had looked specifically at sexual activity. The risk is very small.”

There are many unknown variables that could have affected the data (drug use or frequency of sex, for example) but all things considered, sex-induced SCA is rare enough that most people shouldn’t worry about it. The demographic most likely to suffer SCA from sex appeared to be middle-aged African-American males with a history of heart disease and who were likely already taking heart medication.

What might prove more useful for people to concern themselves with is whether they and the people closest to them know how to perform CPR. Even though all the cases of SCA the researchers included were brought on by partnered sex—meaning they were all witnessed by someone—in only one-third of them did that partner attempt CPR. The survival rate across all cases was under 20 percent, which the researchers link directly to the low rate of accompanying CPR.

"These findings highlight the importance of continued efforts to educate the public on the importance of bystander CPR for SCA, irrespective of the circumstance," Chugh said in a press release.

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