Sex rarely associated with sudden cardiac arrest, study finds

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — If you are thinking about asking your doctor whether your heart is healthy enough for sex, a recent study may relieve some of your concerns.

Researchers at Cedars-Sinai analyzed thousands of sudden cardiac arrest cases and found that sex very rarely precedes the event. Of the 300,000 deaths caused by sudden cardiac arrest each year in the United States, fewer than 1 percent are linked to sexual activity. Specifically, just 1 in 100 men and 1 in 1,000 women experience sudden cardiac arrest related to having sex.

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Worried your heart may give out while having sex? Worry no more. A new study finds that fewer than 1 percent of deaths caused by sudden cardiac arrest are linked to lovemaking.

“People will ask their doctors if sex increases their risk of sudden death, and we’ve never had the answer before because there never was a study,” says Sumeet Chugh, MD, associate director of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, in a statement. “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.”

Researchers studied data from the Oregon Sudden Unexpected Death Study. Of the more than 4,500 cases, just 34 occurred during or within an hour of sex. Information in the emergency medical service reports detailed the causes of sudden cardiac arrest cases and showed that very few involved sex.

Sudden cardiac arrest is not the same event as a heart attack, when blood flow to the heart is blocked. Sudden cardiac arrest happens when an electrical impulse goes haywire and the heart suddenly stops beating. This causes blood to stop flowing to the brain and other vital organs and typically causes death if not treated in a manner of minutes.

Researchers found that those patients who did experience sudden cardiac arrest associated with sexual activity were more likely to have ventricular fibrillation (a serious cardiac rhythm disruption) and tachycardia (an elevated heart rate). Most cases were men with a history of heart disease.

The study also found sudden cardiac arrest related to sexual activity tended to occur in younger individuals — at an average age of 60.3 verses 65.2 for those experiencing sudden cardiac arrest for reasons unrelated to sexual activity.  African-Americans may be at a higher risk for sudden cardiac arrest related to sexual activity. The study found that while just 7.8 percent of sudden cardiac arrest cases were African-American individuals, almost 19 percent of all sexual activity-related sudden cardiac arrests were among this segment.

One positive finding is that the chances of surviving sudden cardiac arrest are much higher when it occurs during sexual activity. Almost 20 percent of patients survive sudden cardiac arrest related to sexual activity compared to just 12.9 percent for cases unrelated to sexual activity.

In all study cases, another person was present at the time of the sudden cardiac arrest. But just one-third of patients received CPR. In cases not involving sexual activity, bystanders did chest compressions on 27 percent of patients. In cases related to sexual activity, 32 percent of patients received CPR.

“This highlights the importance of continued efforts to educate the public on the importance of CPR, no matter the circumstance,” says Chugh.

If all this still leaves you a bit unsettled, maybe instead of talking to your doctor, just ask your partner whether they know how to perform CPR.

Results were published in November 2017 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

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