TIME Heart Disease

How Heart Attacks Can Affect People’s Sex Lives

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42 percent of women without sexual problems developed them a year after having a heart attack

For most people, having sex after a heart attack is safe. But about half of men and women say they have problems with sexual function a year after having a heart attack, according to a new study published in JAMA Cardiology.

Researchers analyzed data from 2,802 people in the U.S. and Spain who’d had a heart attack and who were tracked for the following year. The people in the study were on the young side: 18-55, an age range in which about 20% of heart attacks occur.

Of the sexually active people in the study, more than half of women and nearly half of men had problems with sexual function in the year after a heart attack. The most common issues were lack of interest and trouble lubricating for women, and erection problems and lack of interest for men.

Some of these might be stemming from a mix of biological and psychological issues, says study author Dr. Stacy Lindau, associate professor of obstetrics/gynecology and medicine-geriatrics and director of the University of Chicago’s Program in Integrative Sexual Medicine. “Sexuality is very much a mind-body phenomenon,” she says. Lindau says she’s seen patients in whom heart attacks fuel anxiety about sex—“a fair number of people worry that having sex after their heart attack might trigger another,” she says, and some patients where heart attacks bring them closer to their partner. “It can feel like a wake-up call: they realize how much they appreciate their loved one, and they commit to being even more invested in their sex life.”

These results suggest that more people may fall into the first camp than the second. But there’s another, more positive way to look at them, Lindau says. “Forty percent of women and fifty-five percent of men who had no problems before their heart attack reported having none in the year after their heart attack,” she says.

Another finding—that heart attack patients who hadn’t talked to their doctor about sex were less likely to be having sex—may point to a way forward. “Most people after a heart attack really want to get back to their sexual life; it can be a really important element to helping people recover,” says Lindau. “We now know what those problems are, so we can counsel patients on what to do and what to expect.”

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