According to the American Heart Association, 44 million women in the United States suffer from cardiovascular disease. One of the biggest concerns among women with heart disease is how this condition will affect their sex lives. Many women are not comfortable discussing this topic with their mostly male cardiologists, and misinformation abounds.
A study published in the May 12, 2012 issue of the “American Journal of Cardiology” found that 60 percent of women who’ve had a heart attack report a decline in sexual activity. As many as 50 percent of women with significant cardiovascular disease have an impaired ability to reach orgasm, writes Dr. Lauren Streicher in her book, “Sex Rx: Hormones, Health and Your Best Sex Ever.” It’s unclear, though, whether this statistic reflects psychological fear or physiological compromise. However, certain commonly prescribed beta blockers like propranolol and metoprolol are known to have a dampening effect on the libido.
How Does Sexual Activity Affect the Heart?
Heart attack survivors, both male and female, worry that sexual activity could bring on another heart attack.
Sexual activity in an intimate context, however, may not qualify as aerobic exercise.
Interestingly, studies show significant differences in pulse, blood pressure, and respiratory rates between laboratory volunteers who did not know each other before engaging in sex in a clinical setting and married couples having sex at home. Couples having sex in their own bedrooms showed only a slight elevation in vital signs; equivalent, perhaps, to what the couples might see if they took a brisk walk around the block on level ground.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t cardiovascular benefits associated with having sex. If a woman is able to orgasm, her pituitary gland releases the hormone oxytocin, which lowers the blood pressure significantly. Sex releases endorphins, which relieve stress and elevate the mood.
Sex can also enhance intimacy and the emotional bond between two partners. Intimacy itself can have a positive effect upon the heart. Among patients who survive for three months following a myocardial infarction, single people of both sexes had a 71% greater likelihood of dying within the next five years than married people.
Sex After a Heart Attack
How do you know when it’s safe to start making love again after you’ve had a heart attack? Doctors say that patients whose myocardial infarctions left them with no significant deficits may be ready to resume sexual activity in as soon as a week. Patients who’ve had cardiac bypass surgery need to wait until their incisions have healed. Many physicians recommend stress tests to their patients: If patients are healthy enough to work a light sweat without triggering chest pains, then they’re healthy enough to have sex.
If you have questions about whether you can resume sexual activity, it’s important to initiate a conversation about that subject with your cardiologist. Though there’s lots of information on the Internet, most of it is written from a male perspective. Many male physicians may feel inhibited about reaching out to their female patients on this topic, so you may need to be proactive.