While heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. It is also one of the top killers of sexual health for the many women that survive a heart attack. While every situation is unique, the one thing that seems to be consistent is that, chances are, your doctor, no matter how otherwise fabulous, has not adequately addressed, or even mentioned the impact heart disease may have on your sex life.
Only 35% of women receive information about resuming sexual activity after myocardial infarction (MI) – heart attack – and that is only if they initiate the discussion, according to a 2013 University of Chicago study.
“Women would like to resume sex after a heart attack, but they would like to be better informed about what’s safe so they can have a more enjoyable sex life,” said Stacy Lindau, MD of the University of Chicago medicine and study co-author,
The fear factor is huge and not without some validity. After all, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller died while having sex with his mistress. Pope Paul II died while allegedly being sodomized by a page. Even the mighty Attila the Hun fell victim to a heart attack that caused his early demise – on his wedding night no less.
And while people might kid about it being a great way to go, fear of heart attack during sex significantly reduces the amount of sexual activity of patients with known heart problems. In one study, 71% of women post MI avoided sexual activity specifically out of fear on the part of the patient or spouse.
Other than making your heart go “pitter-patter,” what are the cardiac effects of sexual activity?
Volunteers having sex in a laboratory setting (that must have been interesting!) have a significant increase in pulse, blood pressure and respiratory rates. In other words, the heart works harder, pretty much along the same level as with a moderate workout.
What’s really interesting is when similar studies are conducted among married couples in their own bedrooms; heart rates don’t increase during sex! In fact, on average, married couples had a lower heat rate than recorded during normal daily activities. It’s actually somewhat depressing (and reassuring at the same time) that having sex with your spouse in your own bedroom requires only the same amount of exertion as a 2 to 4 mile per hour stroll on a level surface for a few minutes.
That is why studies show that sexual activity is rarely responsible for a heart attack. Risks are even smaller in men and women who are routinely sexually active, and have participated in a regular post-heart attack exercise program.
If you continue to avoid intimacy from a fear of dying or having a repeat heart attack, it may help to have an exercise stress test to assure you that your heart can take it. In general, most cardiologists say you are safe to have sex if you can climb up two flights of stairs without having chest pain or becoming out of breath.
Facing the fear factor
So if you have a heart condition or are post MI, make a specific appointment to talk to your doctor about the appropriate level of sexual activity. Often women will ask as the doctor is headed out the door and get a cursory answer. By letting your doctor know this is an important issue, and not something just tagged on to your heart attack check-up, you will get more information than if you ask on the fly.
But caution: Right after a heart attack is not the time to have an affair or join the mile-high club unless you are willing to suffer the fate of Nelson Rockefeller.