Sex and your health

Created date

January 22nd, 2019
Interest in sex and intimacy doesn’t just evaporate as people get older.

Interest in sex and intimacy doesn’t just evaporate as people get older.

It’s difficult to determine seniors’ opinions about sex and whether they are having more sex or less. That’s because there’s no objective way to measure, and answers are obtained through surveys. For instance, a survey by an online dating social network for seniors found that that 97% of older adults believe that a sexual relationship is good for health. But a New England Journal of Medicine survey found that 35% of women and 13% of men rated sex as not at all important for health. 

Should you add sex to your regimen for good health?

What the science shows

“Research shows there are many benefits to sexual activity, including lower blood pressure, reduced pain, improved bladder control, reduced heart attack risk, and possibly reduced prostate cancer risk,” says Matt Narrett, chief medical officer for Erickson Living. “Emotionally it helps with sleep and eases stress.”

A 2017 National Institutes of Health study, however, challenged commonly held assumptions that sex is good for seniors’ health. The study found that older men who had sex at least weekly had twice the risk of experiencing elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, or elevated C-reactive protein levels. Researchers think these problems might be related to erectile dysfunction drugs, testosterone levels, or the physical demands of sex.

The same did not hold true for women. In fact, women who were sexually active were found to have lower blood pressure and no increased risk for cardiovascular events. This may be related to stress reduction that comes with sexual activity and the psychological well-being that reinforces bonds with their partners. “Studies show that sexual satisfaction is positively associated with good health for women,” says Sarah de la Torre, M.D., obstetrics and gynecology specialist in Seattle, Wash. “Many women note that they care less about what others think as they age, and most importantly, they start to consider their own health and well-being as a priority.”

Despite research results, you need to know about your individual risks. “Your doctor can advise you about whether sexual relations can be safe if you have heart disease or other medical conditions,” Narrett says.

Why things change

Does your sex drive decrease as you age? There are arguments both for and against. “As with any information relating to sexual activity, participants’ self-reports are the source,” says Jennifer FitzPatrick, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.-C., an expert on aging and founder of Jenerations Health Education, Inc. “It’s hard to measure sex drive because both biological and psychological factors are involved.”

“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,” Narrett says.

According to the National Institute on Aging, health factors such as dementia, stroke, incontinence, diabetes, and arthritis are cited as concerns related to why older adults refrain from sexual activity. “Basically, if for any reason you don’t feel well, you’re not going to want to be intimate,” FitzPatrick says.

Hormones related to libido such as testosterone and estrogen decline as you age, but these changes have a different effect on each person. “Erectile dysfunction can be the result for men, which may cause them to lose confidence and interest in sex,” FitzPatrick says. “The main physical issue affecting women is vaginal dryness.”

Another reason heterosexual women may not want to date or have sex is simply a lack of available male partners. According to the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics, women in the U.S. have an average life expectancy of about 81 years; whereas, men’s life expectancy is about 76 years.

“Fortunately, modern medicine has given us solutions for these problems that are effective for many people,” Narrett says. “Your doctor can be an important resource—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. Don’t hesitate to discuss your sexual concerns with your medical provider during a visit.”

Safe sex at any age

You never get to an age when you can give up safe sex practices. Pregnancy is obviously not the problem (barring a medical miracle) but sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are. Seniors can be at risk for syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydial infection, genital herpes, hepatitis B, genital warts, trichomoniasis, and HIV. “Data show that STDs are on the rise among seniors,” FitzPatrick says. “Anyone who is not in a monogamous relationship should use condoms.”

There are several theories about why STDs are becoming more prevalent in older adults. Men have had access to drugs for erectile dysfunction for several years now, which could mean they are having sex more often. According to the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, a high mid-life divorce rate and online dating may also be factors.

Go for it

“There is no age limit on sexuality and sexual activity,” de la Torre says. “While the frequency or ability to perform sexually will generally decline modestly as seniors experience the normal physiological changes that accompany aging, reports show that the majority of men and women between the ages of 50 and 80 are still enthusiastic about sex and intimacy.”

Did you know? Research shows that only 38% of men and 22% of women over age 50 have discussed sexual problems with their health care provider.