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Can Sex Cause a Heart Attack?

The answer is yes — but the risk is far below what you think

En español | The time: Approximately 10 p.m. on Jan. 26, 1979.

The place: A townhouse at 13 West 54th St. in New York.

The people: Nelson Rockefeller, the 70-year-old former vice president of the United States, and Megan Marshack, his 25-year-old aide (and rumored mistress).

The events: Rockefeller died of a heart attack while with Marshack, putting the young woman in an ethical quagmire: Should she slip away, leaving Rockefeller to be discovered later with his reputation intact? Or should she dial 911 in a bid to save him — and air their dirty laundry?

African-American man clutches his chest, Can Sex Cause a Heart Attack?

The chance of a heart attack during sex is in fact negligible. — Istockphoto

Marshack did the right thing, more or less, calling a reporter who then summoned an ambulance. The resulting scandal brought an intriguing health story out into the open: Men — and women — can have a heart attack during sex.

But how often does that happen? Very infrequently, statistics show: Despite all the publicity surrounding Rockefeller's death, the chance of a heart attack during sex is in fact negligible. According to a report done recently in Belgium, you're more likely to drop dead after drinking a cup of coffee than you are from a romp between the sheets.

The Belgian researchers reviewed 36 studies that focused on people's activities shortly before heart attacks. More than half (56 percent) had been engaged in no particular activity. Here's what the rest (44 percent) were doing: getting angry in traffic (7.4 percent), exercising strenuously (6.2), drinking alcohol or coffee (5.0), breathing heavily polluted air (4.8), suffering emotional distress (3.9), seething with non-traffic anger (3.1), eating a heavy meal (2.7), experiencing sudden joy (2.4), having sex (2.2), using cocaine (0.9), using marijuana (0.8). (These figures control for the frequency of the activities: Cocaine is a major heart attack trigger, but few people use it, so it appears near the bottom of the list.)

Next Page: Can you guess what percentage of heart attacks are triggered by sex? What group of people are most at risk? »

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