Heart Attack Survivors, Rejoice: Sex Is Still Okay for Some

PHOTO: A senior couple holds hands in an undated stock photo.Getty Images
A senior couple holds hands in an undated stock photo.

Many things change after a heart attack, but new research suggests your sex life need not be one of them.

German researchers studied more than 500 heart attack survivors, men and women, over a 10-year period. Patients who had sex at least once weekly had no higher risk of having a heart attack than those having no sex at all. On the contrary, these friskier patients tended to be healthier.

The study was published Monday in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Traditionally, the concern among some doctors -– and many patients and their partners –- has been that sex after heart attack might trigger another cardiac event; however, the new findings suggest that this is unlikely. Moreover, the vast majority of heart attacks seen in the study did not even occur within 24 hours of having sex.

The study’s lead investigator Dr. Dietrich Rothenbacher told ABC News the study’s message is clear: “Don’t be afraid – at work or in the bedroom.”

“[The stress on your heart during sex] is comparable to climbing two staircases or taking a brisk walk,” said Rothenbacher, chair of epidemiology at Germany’s Ulm University. He added that there may actually be some benefits for those patients who have more frequent sexual activity -– most notably in terms of improved quality of life for patients and their partners.

The study supports findings from numerous studies over the past decade, said Dr. Steven Nissen, chair of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. Nissen said that because of this growing body of evidence, he does not put limitations on patients who feel that they are able to have sex.

But he said the issue of whether sex actually improves these patients’ health is still up for debate.

“It is a bit of a chicken and egg situation,” Nissen said, adding that it is not yet clear whether these health benefits exist –- or if healthier heart attack survivors are just having more frequent sex than those who are worse off.

There are still some heart attack survivors, of course who should avoid sexual activity -– particularly those who still experience chest discomfort with mild to moderate exercise, or any who are still in doubt about the safety of resuming normal sexual activity.

Rothenbacher noted that patients who are taking drugs known as nitrates for chest pain should exercise caution, speaking with their doctor first before taking other medications to treat erectile dysfunction.

Doctor’s Take:

Ultimately, it is up to a heart attack survivor to decide for him or herself whether the time is right to return to a normal sex life. If you experience symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath with sexual activity, it may mean that it’s not yet time. Also, it is important to remember that medications like Viagra and Cialis can have side effects if taken with some of the medications people also take for heart disease. In these and other situations, a frank conversation with your doctor may be the best step you can take.

Dr. Nicholas A Piazza is an Internal Medicine Resident Physician at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, NC.