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An extramarital affair is bad for the heart -- literally

November 29, 2011|By Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times/For the Booster Shots blog
  • Herman Cain denies having a long-term affair with Atlanta woman Ginger White. Studies show that affairs can be bad for the heart.
Herman Cain denies having a long-term affair with Atlanta woman Ginger… (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski )

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain may soon drop out of the race after an Atlanta woman said on national television that she carried on an extramarital affair with the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO for 13 years. Cain denied that he and Ginger White were anything more than friends but acknowledged to top aides that the accusation – following several claims of sexual harassment stemming from his years at the National Restaurant Assn. – could drain support for his campaign.

If White’s version of events turns out to be correct, it would hardly be the first instance of a politician straying outside his marriage. In fact, research suggests there’s a correlation between having the chutzpah to run for public office and taking on the risk of an extramarital affair.

The man who is unfaithful to his wife is “an alpha male, a sort of superhero,” according to Italian researchers who published a study in the International Journal of Andrology in 2009. For instance, such men have higher levels of testosterone and are more likely to seek attention, be more seductive and crave new and exciting situations compared to men who don’t engage in affairs. They also have lower rates of erectile dysfunction – a sign that they have better cardiovascular function.

In fact, the Italian research team wondered whether the affairs themselves might be good for men’s cardiovascular health. To find out, they analyzed data collected on questionnaires completed by nearly 1,100 patients of an andrology clinic. The heart health of the subjects was tracked for up to eight years.

Among those patients, 8% acknowledged that they were in a “stable” extramarital relationship (one lasting more than two months). During the period of study, there were 95 major adverse coronary events, including 56 cases of ischemic heart disease, 29 cases of stroke or transient ischemic attacks, and 11 cases of peripheral artery disease. Eight of these events were fatal. There were also 42 deaths that had nothing to do with heart disease.

The researchers found that men in stable extramarital relationships were twice as likely as other men to have heart disease at the start of the study. (They were also three years older, on average.) Even after adjusting for age, smoking behavior and other factors, men involved in long-term affairs were more likely to experience a serious heart event over the course of the study.

In further analysis, they found that cheating husbands had an increased risk of heart problems only in cases in which the men said their wives had not lost interest in sex.

The stereotype of a man dropping dead while in the throes of passion is not without basis, the researchers wrote. Cases of “sudden coital death,” as they described it, are not hard to find in the medical literature, and they “usually” involve “extramarital partners.” In at least two studies of autopsy reports from Germany, researchers have found that a disproportionate number of these deaths occurred in the context of an affair, with only a few deaths happening while with one’s wife. Studies from Asia found similar patterns, according to the Italian study.

“We now report a deleterious effect of infidelity on cardiovascular morbidity,” they wrote. As for the reasons, they offered several theories, including:

  • Encounters with people other than one’s spouse are often preceded by heavy eating and/or drinking;
  • Having sex in an unfamiliar place can increase one’s heart rate and blood pressure, potentially triggering an attack;
  • Feelings of guilt can “induce psychological distress,” which in turn ups the heart risk.
Bottom line: Infidelity won’t just break your partner’s heart, it may damage yours as well.

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