Sex & Relationships

What Are the Real Chances of Suffering a Heart Attack During Sex?

Happens all the time in the movies, right?

Photo Credit: By VGstockstudio /

There have long been rumors that engaging in sex-triggered heart attacks in Pope John XII and Nelson Rockefeller. Men whose hearts just can’t take the endurance test of sexual activity are the stuff of TV (Mad Men’s Roger Sterling), films (The Color Purple’s Mister) and urban legend (this guy), with real anecdotal cases here and there (actor Matthew McConaughey’s mother swears the star’s dad died mid-coitus). But the chances of actually experiencing cardiac arrest or another potentially fatal condition during sex are actually slim to none.

Less than one percent, in fact. That’s according to a new study from scientists at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, who specifically looked at deaths rates related to doing it. The researchers analyzed data from 2002 to 2015 involving nearly 4,560 cases of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) in Portland, Oregon patients. Just 34, or .7 percent, of those cases could be connected to sexual activity. Heart issues happened during sex in 18 cases and “within minutes after cessation” of sex in 15 cases. They couldn’t quite nail down the timeline in the remaining case.

“People will ask their doctors if sex increases their risk of sudden death, and we’ve never had the answer,” study lead Sumeet Chugh, who heads up the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles, told NBC. “Over the years, we’ve had a fair bit of data on physical activity and how it’s related to sudden cardiac arrest, but no one had looked specifically at sexual activity. The risk is very small.”

The one part of the old trope that holds up is that it disproportionately affects men. According to researchers, of the tiny percentage of patients whose SCAs were sex-linked, 94 percent were men. The UK’s Independent notes the tally suggests that in men overall “one percent of all sudden cardiac arrest deaths was sex-related, compared with 0.1 percent in women.” Researchers also concluded that “individuals with sex-SCA were on average younger (34 to 83 years of age) and more likely to be African American.” For a variety of reasons including the everyday stressor of racism, African Americans are generally more likely to suffer and die from SCA. And younger people are more likely to be engaged in lively sexual activity. Most of the sex-SCA group also had a history of coronary artery disorder or symptomatic heart failure “and the majority were taking cardiovascular medications.”

Despite the fact that another person was necessarily present during SCA in these patients, CPR was only performed in one-third of cases. “These findings highlight the importance of continued efforts to educate the public on the importance of bystander CPR for SCA, irrespective of the circumstance,” Dr. Chugh noted in a press release.

Though related, SCA and heart attacks differ in terms of how they affect the body. “A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when blood flow to the heart gets cut off, starving it of its oxygen supply,” Newsweek notes. “SCA refers to when the heart itself stops beating and pumping blood to oxygenate other vital organs.” The condition was responsible for the death of musician Tom Petty in October.

Kali Holloway is a senior writing fellow and the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute.