A new study in the journal JAMA Cardiology has indicated that people younger than expected sometimes die of heart attacks during or immediately after sex, and that people under middle-age with cardiac conditions “may be concerned about their risk for sudden death during sexual intercourse.” On the whole, however, the number of sex-related fatalities in young people is pretty low, which means sex is still considered a safe activity.
Sudden cardiac death (SCD) is diagnosed when a person drops dead within 12 hours of seeming perfectly healthy. After analyzing 6,847 SCD cases that had been referred to a cardiac pathology unit in London between 1994 and 2020, the study authors found that 17 had occurred within one hour of sexual intercourse. This represents 0.2 percent of all SCD incidences recorded by the center across the 16-year period.
Eleven of the 17 victims were men, while the average age of decedents was 38. This finding is particularly interesting as it contradicts the results of previous studies which have implied that virtually all lethal sexual episodes involve men who are older than middle-age (40-60 years).
For example, a large study of 32,000 forensic autopsies across three decades in Germany identified 68 cases of death by sex, all but five of which involved men with an average age of 59 years.
Reacting to their findings, the authors of the new study explain that younger people with a history of heart problems should be aware of the dangers associated with sex, which triggers a surge of catecholamine neurotransmitters such as dopamine and adrenaline. The sudden rush of these excitatory hormones can potentially cause cardiac complications in vulnerable individuals.
Of the 17 people who bowed out while doing the dirty, nine were in possession of structurally normal hearts and were therefore diagnosed with sudden arrhythmic death syndrome. A further two suffered an aortic dissection, which occurs when blood gushes through a tear in the aorta, causing the vessel’s inner layers to split.
The results of this study appear to indicate that women make up a higher proportion of sex-induced fatalities than previously thought. According to the researchers, this finding may reflect the fact that the average age of their study cohort was lower than those of previous studies and therefore includes fewer older men, who are generally more prone to heart disease. In other words, it may be that men become increasingly likely to die while making love as they age, hence the predominance of male decedents among older cohorts.
Not wanting to pour cold water on the joy of sex, however, the study authors made sure to sign off on a positive note, concluding that “these findings provide some reassurance that engaging in sexual activity is relatively safe in patients with a cardiac condition, especially in younger (aged <50 years) individuals.”