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The importance of physical and emotional intimacy

Created date

February 12th, 2016

“Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it. Let’s do it, let’s fall in love…”

These wonderful, playful song lyrics written decades ago by Cole Porter come to mind this Valentine’s Day season as we contemplate love and sex and their importance to us all. Love, of course, is foundational, but younger readers of this column might be surprised to learn that sexual intimacy is of high importance to a majority of seniors.  

This makes sense, as sex is good for you both physically and emotionally. (Yes, you can share with your partner that sex is generally good for your health). The benefits are many and include lower blood pressure, reduced pain, improved bladder control, reduced heart attack risk, and possibly reduced prostate cancer risk. Emotionally, it helps with sleep and eases stress. Why, it can even count as exercise!

Barriers to sexual activity

While sex is healthful and desired by many seniors, the prevalence of sexual activity declines significantly with age—from 73% among people age 57 to 64 down to 26% in the 75 to 85 age range. The frequency of sex decreases in part due to health conditions, including arthritis, physical disability, chronic pain, dementia, heart disease, and lung disease. After all, if you are dealing with a chronic health problem, you may not feel well, and if you don’t feel well, you’re not going to be thinking about sex.

Some seniors have lost their desire for sex for other reasons. Hormones such as testosterone and estrogen may decline with age, and these processes affect everyone differently. Many people have lost their spouses, or their spouse has a chronic health problem. In one study, researchers found that about half of seniors remaining sexually active had at least one bothersome sexual problem—erectile dysfunction being the most common for men, vaginal dryness for women. Fortunately, modern medicine has given us solutions for these problems that are effective for many people. 

Your doctor can be an important resource for you—assessing your medical condition and possibly helping you manage in a way that makes it easier to be intimate. Sometimes, sexual dysfunction is due to a medication side effect that can be easily addressed. Your doctor can also advise you about whether sexual relations can be safe if, for example, you have heart disease. Please don’t hesitate to discuss your sexual concerns with your medical provider during a visit. Finally, please make sure you practice safe sex—sexually transmitted diseases can occur at any age, and studies show that these diseases are on the rise among seniors.

While sex may not be the same as it was when you were younger, intimacy both physical and emotional can be achieved in many ways; be creative and don’t lament physical limitations. The deep connections and shared histories between many partners are often more than enough to fulfill their intimacy needs.