Sex is good for your cardiovascular health, right? Maybe not if you’re a man over the age of 57 and you’re having too much of it, or enjoying it too much. That’s the surprising conclusion of a recent study published in the September 2016 issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
Analyzing data from 1,046 partnered men and 1,158 women ages 57 to 85 collected at two intervals five years apart, researchers found that while moderate sex was beneficial for men’s cardiovascular health, those having sex one or more times a week had nearly double the odds of experiencing a cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack, stroke, or heart failure than men who were sexually inactive.
“This was a surprise, because the general understanding is that sex is good for people’s health, but what we discovered is that the benefits aren’t the same for everyone,” says lead researcher Hui Liu, an associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University.
Why you shouldn’t worry
The American Heart Association states that although sexual activity is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular events, the absolute rate is extremely low. Sexual activity, the AHA states, is the cause of less than 1 percent of all heart attacks.
Liu’s research also showed that women experienced heart health benefits, particularly lower rates of hypertension, from an emotionally satisfying sex life regardless of the frequency.
Interestingly, the quality of the sex was also a factor in predicting cardiovascular health issues. Men who reported an “extremely pleasurable” sexual relationship in the first wave of data collection had 65 percent higher odds of experiencing a cardiovascular event five years later compared with men who rated their sexual experiences as less enjoyable. Men who rated their sexual relationship as “extremely satisfying” raised their odds 50 percent.
What’s going on here? “We suspect that for older men who have very frequent sex or rate sex very highly, there may be some sexual dysfunction, sexual compulsion, or other factors involved that could increase stress,” Liu says. Another explanation involves the use of Viagra and other sexual enhancement drugs, she says. “We can assume a fairly large proportion of older men are using those medications, but we don’t have good scientific evidence over whether they may cause cardiac complications,” Liu says.
Liu and co-authors Linda Waite, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, Michigan State doctoral student Shannon Shen, and Donna Wang, a professor of medicine at Michigan State, also note in the study that for men, who exert themselves more during sex, the strains and demands of the act may increase to the point of exhaustion as they become increasingly frail.
“The bulk of the scientific literature indicates that regular sexual activity with one partner at least a few times a month is good for one’s cardiovascular health,” says Roger Blumenthal, M.D., professor of cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and a member of the HealthAfter50 board of advisors.
“Most men develop some degree of erectile difficulties as they age; this can be compounded by increased emotional stress and periods of low mood,” he adds.
If you have cardiovascular disease, the AHA’s recommendations vary depending on your risk of complications. Sex is deemed “reasonable” for those at low risk of complications or who can exercise without experiencing angina, arrhythmia, or other symptoms. If you are at higher risk, an exercise stress test could help determine if there’s cause for concern. And if you’re resuming sexual activity after a hiatus, it’s recommended that you see your doctor for a thorough physical.
But what Liu really wants people to take away from the study is that the emotional part of sex is an important and much less studied part of the sex-and-health equation. “Most of the literature on sex and health compares sex with physical exercise, but sex goes way beyond that,” she notes. “The intimacy built between the partners may provide social and emotional support, and may also improve the quality of the relationship, in turn benefiting health.”
Melanie Haiken is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer specializing in health, travel, and the environment. She has written about everything from menopause-related sleep problems to the science of mouthwash for websites and magazines like Parade, Health, More, and Real Simple. She has a master’s in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and recently conquered her fear of heights to climb Angels Landing in Zion National Park.