Sex poses surprisingly low risk to heart patients

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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 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 says 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 Glenn Levine, lead author of a report detailing the recommendations and a professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

The report says 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 rehab -- exercise 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 doctors' group offers advice for heart patients based on scientific research involving sometimes provocative sex-related topics:

• Who's most at risk for sudden death related to sex? Married men having affairs, often with younger women in unfamiliar settings. Those circumstances can add to stress that may increase the risks, evidence from a handful of studies suggests.

• Sex may be OK as soon as one week after a relatively mild heart attack, if patients can walk up a few flights of stairs without discomfort.

• Viagra and other drugs for erectile dysfunction are generally safe for men with stable heart disease.

"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.



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