Not just old folks: Sudden heart problems can kill younger adults making love, too

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LONDON — Dying while making love is something most people probably assume only happens to older adults. However, a new study reveals that sudden heart problems can even strike down younger adults while they’re having sex.

A team from St. George’s, University of London says, while death during a bedroom romp is rare, middle-aged men are not the only people at risk of “checking out” during a moment of passion. In a review of nearly 6,900 cases of sudden cardiac death between 1994 and 2020, researchers found only 17 deaths occurred during or within an hour of having sex. That’s just 0.2 percent.

However, study authors note the average age of these individuals who died while making love was just 38 years-old! Moreover, 35 percent were women. Both of these figures differ greatly from previous studies examining sudden death from heart problems during sex.

In fact, a German study of 32,000 sudden deaths over a 33-year period also found that 0.2 percent died during sex — but the average age of these individuals was 59 and the vast majority were men. In most cases, the men died of a heart attack (or myocardial infarction), but a senior lecturer in chemical pathology from the University of Westminster says that’s not the only thing that can cause sudden death during a bedroom fling.

“There are many reasons why this happens to people. In most cases, it is caused by the physical strain of the sexual activity, or prescription drugs (drugs to treat erectile dysfunction, for example), or illegal drugs, such as cocaine – or both,” writes David Gaze, who did not take part in the study, in The Conversation.

SADS is a real problem during sex

Unlike previous reports, the St. George’s team found heart attacks were not the leading cause of death among people expiring during a love-making session. Instead, 53 percent had a structurally healthy heart, but died of a sudden abnormal heart rhythm. Doctors call this condition sudden arrhythmic death syndrome or SADS.

Another 12 percent died of an aortic dissection, where the layers in the wall of the large heart artery supplying blood to the body tear. This causes blood to flow between the wall layers, making the artery bulge and eventually burst.

The rest of the cases were due to either structural abnormalities in the person’s heart or rare genetic conditions called channelopathies. Structural abnormalities typically appear due to cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle which makes it harder to pump blood throughout the body.

As for the genetic problems, channelopathies occur when ion channels which let sodium and potassium pass in and out of the heart cells stop working properly. This can alter the electrical current through the heart muscle and make the organ beat irregularly.

While these deaths are rare, the new findings identify a risk for people under the age of 50 — not just older adults.

“Younger adults who have been diagnosed with these conditions should seek advice from their cardiologist on the risk associated with sexual activity. However, the low incidence of death in these studies suggests the risk is very low – even in people with existing heart conditions,” Gaze recommends.

There are still plenty of positives about sex

Let’s not dwell too much on the 0.2 percent chance that the last thing you’ll ever do is have a bedroom adventure. Researchers note that sex is also very beneficial for both physical and mental health.

Previous studies show the act of sex can lower blood pressure, boost the immune system, and improve sleep. Having sex and reaching orgasm also releases the hormone oxytocin — the “love hormone.” Oxytocin plays a key role in trust-building and bonding between people.

The findings are published in the journal JAMA Cardiology.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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