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Sex rarely causes cardiac arrest, study finds

Only about 1 in 100 deaths from sudden cardiac arrest in men and about 1 in 1,000 of such deaths in women could be linked to sexual activity, the study found.

The study found that only about 1 in 100 deaths from sudden cardiac arrest in men and about 1 in 1,000 of such deaths in women could be linked to sexual activity.

Despite it being a somewhat frequent plot twist in movies, dying from a sudden cardiac arrest while engaging in sex is not a common occurrence, according to research published Monday in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

In fact, the study found that only about 1 in 100 deaths from sudden cardiac arrest in men and about 1 in 1,000 of such deaths in women could be linked to sexual activity.

That’s less than 1 percent of all deaths from sudden cardiac arrest. 

“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,” said Dr. Sumeet Chugh, the study’s senior author and a cardiologist at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, in a released 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.”

An unexpected failure

Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the heart experiences an electrical malfunction and suddenly stops beating, shutting off blood flow to the brain and other organs. The person loses consciousness and ceases breathing. Death usually results if CPR is not begun — and is not successful at restarting the heart — within minutes.

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Sudden cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart attack, which occurs when blood flowing to part of the heart muscle becomes blocked. In that case, the heart usually continues to beat. A sudden cardiac arrest can occur during or following a heart attack, however.

Each year, more than 350,000 American adults have a sudden cardiac arrest that occurs outside of a hospital, and 90 percent of those people are not revived, according to the American Heart Association.

Past research has linked physical activity — especially activity that’s not part of a person’s regular routine — with an increased risk of sudden cardiac arrest. The current study is, however, the first one to examine sexual activity as a potential trigger for these devastating heart events.

Study details

For their study, Chugh and his colleagues used data from the Oregon Sudden Unexpected Death Study, which has been collecting information on sudden cardiac arrest cases in the Portland metropolitan area since 2002. The researchers identified 4,525 cases between 2002 and 2012 that had enough information to determine whether sexual activity had preceded the stoppage of the person’s heartbeat. The age range of the people in those cases was 34 to 83.

Only 34 of those sudden cardiac arrests — 0.7 percent — occurred during or within an hour of the person engaging in sex. 

Most — 32 of the cases  — involved men with a previous history of various heart diseases. They were particularly more likely to have had a history of a higher-than-normal heart rate (tachycardia) or a serious heart-rhythm disturbance known as ventricular fibrillation.

Perhaps surprisingly, they were also younger — an average age of 60.3 years compared to an average age of 65.2 years for those whose sudden cardiac arrest wasn’t linked to sex.

The importance of CPR

The study’s findings also underscore the importance of knowing CPR. 

More of the individuals who experienced a sex-related sudden cardiac arrest survived the event than those whose heart stopped in other situations (19 percent versus 13 percent), but that difference wasn’t significant, the researchers stress.

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What was significant — and troubling — was that bystanders performed CPR in only about a third of the cases. 

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

FMI: You’ll find a link to the study on the website of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, but the full paper is behind a paywall. To find where you can receive CPR training in your community, go to the American Red Cross’s website and type in your ZIP code.