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Matters of the Heart
Reclaiming Intimacy After a Heart Attack
One of the biggest issues caregivers
face when their loved one is recovering from a heart
attack is resuming intimacy. One reason for this is the
myth that sexual activity can bring on another attack.
While there are cases—the most famous perhaps, is
ex-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller having a heart
attack and dying while in the act with his
mistress—cardiologists agree that sexual activity for
people who have had heart attacks is no more strenuous
than climbing two flights of stairs.
But many caregivers and their loved ones recovering from
heart attacks don’t know this because they don’t ask
their doctors, and doctors often don’t take the
initiative to bring it up.
When Robin Baxley, 47, had her heart attack in April
2001, her main concern was with getting better. “I had a
hematoma, which you get after surgery, so I wasn’t
myself for a month,” she says.
The Miramar, Florida resident spent a week in the
hospital and says that initially, sex was not a
priority. “That was the last thing on my mind,” she
Shyness prevented Baxley from asking her doctor
specifics about resuming intimate relations with her
husband. “I really took it upon myself,” she says. “I
did not ask the doctor because I felt funny asking
According to the Journal of the American Medical
Association, a 1996 study conducted by James E. Muller,
M.D. of Deaconess Hospital and Harvard Medical School,
found that there was minimal risk associated with having
sex after a heart attack.
Researchers conducting the study interviewed a national
sample of 858 heart attack patients who were sexually
active in the year before their heart attacks. The
researchers discovered that while there is an increased
risk of having a heart attack during the two hours
following sexual activity, that risk is about the same
for everyone, whether or not there is a history of
The researchers cited previous data indicating that the
risk of heart attack in a healthy person is about one in
a million, and the risk of heart attack in a person with
a history of cardiac disease is about two in a million.
The study also found that the risk of heart attack
caused by sexual activity rises to about two in a
million for a healthy person and 20 in a million for a
person with a history of cardiac disease.
Researchers also report that “regular exercise can
reduce, and possibly eliminate” the slight increased
risk of a heart attack associated with sexual activity.