CHICAGO — Good news: Sex is safe for most heart patients. If you’re healthy enough to walk up two flights of stairs without chest pain or gasping for breath, you can have a love life.
That advice from a leading doctors’ group on Thursday addresses one of the most pressing, least-discussed issues facing survivors of heart attacks and other heart patients.
In its first science-based recommendations on the subject, the American Heart Association said having sex only slightly raises the chance for a heart attack. And that’s true for people with and without heart disease.
Surprisingly, despite the higher risk for a heart patient to have a second attack, there’s no evidence that they have more sex-related heart attacks than people without cardiac disease.
Many heart patients don’t think twice about climbing stairs, yet many worry that sexual activity will cause another heart attack, or even sudden death, said Dr. Glenn Levine, lead author of a report detailing the recommendations and a professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
The report concluded that sex is something doctors should bring up with all heart patients. Yet few do because they’re uncomfortable talking about it or they lack information, Dr. Levine said. The new guidance is designed to fill that gap.
Heart patients should get a doctor’s OK before engaging in sexual activity. Many may be advised first to do cardiac rehabilitation exercises while being monitored for heart symptoms, to improve heart strength and increase physical fitness. But the heart association says most eventually will be cleared to resume sexual activity.
“The risk of having a heart attack during sexual activity is two to three times higher than when not having sexual activity. However, this increased risk of heart attack during sexual activity represents only a very small part of a person’s overall risk of having a heart attack, and sexual activity is the cause of less than 1 percent of all heart attacks,” Dr. Levine said.
The updated advice was released online Thursday in the heart association journal, Circulation.
Dr. Keith Churchwell, chief medical officer of Vanderbilt University’s Heart and Vascular Institute, said the guidance is important for patients, and that questions about sex are the most common ones he hears from heart patients.
Chicago cardiologist Dr. Dan Fintel, a professor of medicine at Northwestern University, said he routinely gives heart patients a sex talk on their last day in the hospital, knowing that it’s likely on their minds.
“Resuming sexual activity is safe and emotionally part of the healing process, with a few caveats,” he tells patients.
Those caveats elicit nervous chuckles when he explains that includes no philandering, given evidence about that cheating in love causes extra stress.