A recent study shows that episodic sexual activity is associated with a 2.7 times increased risk of heart attack. It doesn’t happen often, but there is evidence of an increase in the risk of sudden cardiac death (SCD) triggered by episodic physical exertion. However, exposures of episodic physical exertion and sexual activity are infrequent, so the absolute risk of these activities triggering an event is small.

The study’s authors state:

“Regular physical activity has been identified as strongly associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and related mortality. Despite the well-established benefits of regular physical activity, anecdotal evidence has suggested that physical activity, as well as other acute exposures, such as sexual activity and psychological stress, can act as triggers of acute cardiac events.”

Sudden cardiac death (also called sudden arrest) is death resulting from an abrupt loss of heart function (cardiac arrest). The victim may or may not have diagnosed heart disease. The time and mode of death are unexpected. It occurs within minutes after symptoms appear. The most common underlying reason for patients to die suddenly from cardiac arrest is coronary heart disease (fatty buildups in the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle).

An estimated 294,851 emergency medical services-treated out-of-hospital cardiac arrests occur in the United States each year.

The study continues in more depth:

“Habitual activity levels significantly affected the association of episodic physical activity and MI, episodic physical activity and SCD, and sexual activity and MI; in all cases, individuals with lower habitual activity levels had an increased relative risk for the triggering effect. Based on our review of 14 case-crossover studies of acute cardiac events, we found a significant association between episodic physical and sexual activity and MI and suggestive evidence of an association between episodic physical activity and SCD. Most importantly, these associations appear to be strongly modified by habitual physical activity, with individuals with higher habitual activity levels experiencing much smaller increases in risk compared with individuals with low activity levels. In view of this, as well as the small absolute magnitude of the risk associated with acute exposure to episodic physical or sexual activity, our findings should not be misinterpreted as indicating a net harm of physical or sexual activity; instead they demonstrate that these exposures are associated with a temporary short-term increase in the risk of acute cardiac events.”

Issa J. Dahabreh, M.D., of Tufts Medical Center, Boston, and Jessica K. Paulus, Sc.D., of Tufts University, Medford, Mass., and the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis to examine the association between episodic physical activity and sexual activity and acute cardiac events and also the interaction of regular physical activity levels with the triggering effect of these exposures. The researchers identified 14 studies that met criteria for inclusion in the analysis.

Subgroups of patients with higher habitual activity levels tended to be less susceptible to the triggering effect of episodic physical activity. Analysis indicated that the relative risk of heart attack triggered by episodic physical activity was decreased by approximately 45%, and SCD 30% for each additional time per week a person was habitually exposed to physical activity.

In 90% of adult victims of sudden cardiac death, two or more major coronary arteries are narrowed by fatty buildups. Scarring from a prior heart attack is found in two-thirds of victims. When sudden death occurs in young adults, other heart abnormalities are more likely causes. Adrenaline released during intense physical or athletic activity often acts as a trigger for sudden death when these abnormalities are present. Under certain conditions, various heart medications and other drugs, as well as illegal drug abuse, can lead to abnormal heart rhythms that cause sudden death.

Source: The Journal of the American Medical Association

Written by Sy Kraft, B.A.