Sexing up the issue doesn't make it true

MEDICAL MATTERS: An irregular romp probably won’t kill you, writes MUIRIS HOUSTON

MEDICAL MATTERS:An irregular romp probably won't kill you, writes MUIRIS HOUSTON

' ADULTERERS BEWARE . . . it could raise your risk of heart attack" was the arresting headline in last Wednesday's British edition of the Daily Mail. The opening lines of the newspaper article citing a piece of US research published that morning were: "Having a fling or one-night stand is already a risky business. But now there is another reason for adulterers to worry."

There is only one problem with the article: the research paper never mentions adultery. In fact, its title is: Occasional Physical, Sexual Activity Associated with Short-term Increased Risk of Heart Attack. This was interesting in its own right without the misleading spin put on it by the newspaper.

The researchers from Tufts University in Boston make it clear the absolute risk of heart attack from infrequent sex is small. They carried out a systematic review of previous research to examine the association between infrequent physical and sexual activity and acute cardiac events such as heart attack.


The authors of the paper in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found a 3.5 times increased risk between episodic physical activity and heart attack. And episodic sexual activity was associated with a 2.7 times increased risk of heart attack.

The good news is that subgroups of patients with higher activity levels tended to be less susceptible to the triggering effect of episodic physical activity. Analysis indicated that the relative risk of heart attack triggered by episodic physical activity was decreased by about 45 per cent for each additional time per week a person undertook regular exercise.

Another piece of heart health research to catch my eye recently found cardiac patients who were optimistic about their treatment and recovery were more likely to be alive after 15 years than patients with similar levels of disease but lower expectations. Published in Archives of Internal Medicine, the study of about 2,800 patients who had undergone coronary angiography (where dye is injected into the heart’s arteries to see if they are narrowed) assessed their psychological health to see how optimistic they were about their recovery from newly-diagnosed heart disease.

Patients who scored low on optimism tests were 30 per cent more likely to die during the study period, even after the researchers controlled for factors such depression and severity of disease. The study’s lead author, Dr John Barefoot, of the department of psychiatry at Duke University, said the findings show that a patient’s attitude to an illness is not only associated with short-term recovery but also their long-term health. The researchers noted that the level of optimism displayed didn’t have to be extreme to have an effect.

“It’s not unrealistic, unbridled optimism,” said Barefoot. “You have got to temper your optimism with some realism, but you can have both.”

Meanwhile, for those with coronary heart disease who struggle to control their weight comes the news that beta-blocker tablets may be contributing to the problem. Beta blockers slow the heart and are commonly prescribed after a coronary event.

A study published in the International Journal of Obesityfound that among more than 11,400 adults with high blood pressure and/or diabetes, those on beta blockers weighed more and had larger waistlines.

The Australian researchers found that people on beta blockers generally burned fewer calories and fat after a meal. They also reported lower physical activity. Overall, the patients were anywhere from 5kg to 17kg heavier than a control group. The findings suggest that beta blockers lead to weight gain by curbing people’s calorie expenditure, the authors concluded.

But to return to the issue of how the media writes about health issues, the following is a reader response to the piece on the Daily Mail website:

“Right, so if you have affairs 24/7, that’s okay then? What a terrible article! Welding two completely unrelated subjects together. Sex to make a subject more interesting.”

Quod erat demonstrandum.