Risky sexual behavior among Americans is putting the public’s health at risk, according to a new CDC study.

Researchers found that the rates of early death and disability attributed to sexual behavior in the U.S. are triple those of any other industrialized country, and women bear the brunt of this public health burden.

The study showed that sexual behavior accounted for nearly 30,000 deaths and around 20 million adverse health consequences in 1998, such as infertility, abortions, and sexually transmitted infections.

Researchers found cervical cancer (search) and HIV infection (search) were the leading causes of sexual behavior-related death among women and HIV was the single biggest cause of death among men.

They say the findings highlight the range of adverse effects that sexual behavior has on public health.

Sex Affects Health

In the study, researchers assessed the extent of the public health burden in the U.S. attributable to sexual behavior for the year 1998. The results appear in the February issue of Sexually Transmitted Infections.

Using national data on sexual health and reproduction, infectious disease, hospital and outpatient statistics, birth and death records, and published research, they calculated adverse health effects, deaths, and “disability adjusted life years" (DALYs, a measure of years of life cut short by premature death and loss of healthy years of life as a result of disability).

They found about 20 million adverse health consequences were attributable to sexual behavior in 1998, or about 7,500 per 100,000 people. These events also accounted for almost 30,000 deaths, which was just over 1 percent of deaths reported in that year.

Researchers estimated that more than 2 million years of life were cut short due to premature death and loss of healthy life because of a disability attributable to sexual behavior. That’s 6 percent of the national total of DALYs.

Nearly two-thirds of the health problems caused by sexual behavior were borne by women, who were also most affected by sexual behavior-related disability.

Men accounted for 66 percent of overall deaths attributed to sexual behavior. But researchers say if HIV/AIDS deaths are taken out of that figure then 80 percent of the deaths would be among women, largely due to cervical cancer deaths.

Cervical cancer is strongly associated with certain high-risk strains of the human papilloma virus (search), which is a sexually transmitted infection.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Ebrahim, S. Sexually Transmitted Infections, February 2005; vol 81: pp 38-40. News release, British Medical Journal Specialist Journals.