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Israeli research urges resuming sex soon after a heart attack

Many who undergo cardiac events fear bursts of physical exertion, but regular sexual activity improves self-perception and is linked to better survival rates, 3-decade study finds

Illustrative photo of a couple kissing at the beach. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a couple kissing at the beach. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

If you’ve recently suffered a heart attack, getting back to having sex may be just what the doctor ordered, according to a study of Israeli heart attack sufferers over three decades.

The study, published Wednesday in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, looked at 495 sexually active Israelis age 65 and younger who all suffered a first heart attack in 1992-93.

As part of the Israel Study of First Acute Myocardial Infarction, researchers visited the patients while they were still hospitalized in the immediate aftermath of their first attack to ask them about their sexual activity over the course of the previous year.

The patients’ average age was 53, and 90 percent of them were men, according to a summary of the findings by the European Society of Cardiology, which publishes the journal.

Between three and six months later, the respondents were all asked again if their activity had lessened, resumed at the same level, or increased following the attack.

3D rendering of a man having a heart attack (iStock)

The study subjects were divided into two groups based on their responses: the 47% who said they had scaled back their sexual activity, and the 53% who said they had maintained or increased it.

The differences in their later lives were stark.

Following up over two decades later, after 211 of the patients had died (or 43% of the original sample), researchers found that those who had returned to sex quickly had a 35% lower risk of death.

The researchers accounted for other mortality predictors before reaching that figure, including “socioeconomic status, depression, physical activity, obesity, self-rated health, and the severity of the heart attack,” according to the ESC’s Wednesday report on the study.

The cause for the lower risk of death wasn’t a simple or direct link between sex and death, suggested study author Prof. Yariv Gerber of Tel Aviv University, but rather a complex interplay of self-perception, lifestyle and the social benefits of strong relationships with spouses.

Illustrative: A couple walks with an umbrella in the rain in Tel Aviv, on December 1, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Most of the survival benefits associated with a quick return to sexual activity had nothing to do with the heart, the study found. Other medical problems, including cancer, were less likely to arise and thus less likely to kill.

“Numerous physical and psychosocial health parameters are required for maintaining regular sexual activity,” noted Gerber, who heads Tel Aviv’s School of Public Health. It may be those factors, rather than the sex itself, that drives the improved survival chances.

“Improved physical fitness, stronger spouse relations, and a mental ability to ‘bounce back’ from the initial shock of the event within a few months are among the possible explanations for the survival benefit observed among the maintained/increased group,” Gerber suggested.

Optimism itself may be a significant factor.

“Resumption of sexual activity soon after a heart attack may be a part of one’s self-perception as a healthy, functioning, young and energetic person. This may lead to a healthier lifestyle generally.”

Illustrative: A couple takes a selfie at the Mahane Yehuda Market in central Jerusalem on Friday, March 31, 2017. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

On the other side of the equation are “some patients (including younger ones) [who] hesitate to resume sexual activity for long periods after a heart attack,” in part because of the fear that strenuous exercise could trigger new cardiac events.

But those who “perceive their health as poor… may also be less likely to adhere to cancer screening tests and other prevention practices during follow-up. This may explain the strong inverse association between resumption of sexual activity and cancer mortality that was seen in our study.”

The key takeaway may be a simple reminder that sex is good for you.

At the very least, says Gerber, his research should “reduce patients’ concerns about returning to their usual level of sexual activity soon after a heart attack.”

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