Myths and facts about sex and seniors

Created date

January 24th, 2020
These two seniors look like they're having a great time on their date. Sexual health is important at any age!

Myth or fact: Seniors who are sexually active are happier than seniors who abstain. It’s a fact.

Myth or fact: You have to practice safe sex no matter how old you are.

It’s a fact. Age doesn’t protect you from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The 2018 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that among all age groups, rates of STDs are going up, and the greatest rise appears to be among seniors. An analysis by athenahealth  showed that in-office treatments for chlamydia, herpes simplex, hepatitis B, trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, and syphilis were up 23% from 2014 to 2017. Treatment for these same diseases rose by 11% in younger age groups.

There are several theories among experts about why STDs are becoming more common in older adults. Men have access to drugs for erectile dysfunction, which could mean they are having sex more often. According to the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, a high midlife divorce rate and online dating may also be factors. “We assume seniors know about safe sex, but many don’t,” says Jennifer FitzPatrick, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.-C., founder of Jenerations Health Education, Inc. “Seniors who are sexually active outside of a committed relationship should use condoms.”

Myth or fact: If I’ve lost interest in sex, I will always feel that way.

It’s a myth. “There’s a lot of mixed information with regard to why sex drive decreases as we age,” Fitzpatrick says. “Both biological and psychological factors affect your sexuality. For example, sex hormones such as testosterone and estrogen decline as you age, but these changes affect everyone differently.” According to the National Institute on Aging, naturally occurring changes in body shape and size may change some people s desire for sexual relations, as can medication side effects. Having chronic health conditions doesn’t help matters. “If you don’t feel well, you’re not going to be thinking about sex,” FitzPatrick says. “Talk to your health care provider about it. Many causes for decreased libido can be treated.”

Myth or fact: If it takes too long for a man to get an erection, he should ask for medication.

It’s a myth. Erectile dysfunction (ED) medications have become enormously popular, but they are not necessarily the only answer. “Aging changes may mean men don’t get erections as quickly as they used to, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they need medication or that they have erectile dysfunction,” FitzPatrick explains. “Medications, particularly those for depression, may be affecting your sexual function. Talk to your doctor to see if your current regimen can be modified rather than adding another medication you may not need.”

ED medication can have side effects such as headaches, vision changes, body aches, diarrhea, stomach upset, nasal congestion, and flushes (temporary skin redness, like blushing). If you are taking ED medications and experience bothersome side effects, call your doctor.

Myth or fact: Seniors who are sexually active are happier than seniors who abstain.

It’s a fact. There have been a number of studies showing that sex is good for your mood. A lot of that could be directly linked to “feel good” hormones that are released during sex. In addition, recently published data from a large longitudinal study showed that older adults report greater enjoyment of life when they are sexually active. The study also showed that couples who are sexually active are likely to share a closer relationship, and closeness to your partner is linked to better mental health.

On the other hand, seniors who experience a decline in sexual activity reported poorer well-being than those who maintain their sex life.

Many experts say that sex is a form of exercise, after all, and exercise is shown to lighten mood. Exercise also improves sleep and relieves stress, both of which are essential for good mental health.

Myth or fact: Seniors who are sexually active are healthier than seniors who abstain.

It’s a fact (mostly). A lot of research suggests that sex is associated with better health, but in some studies there is no way to know whether sexually active seniors were more likely to be healthy in the first place. A large National Institutes of Health study that controlled for some of these factors had mixed results. The study showed that women who were sexually active had lower blood pressure and no increased risk for cardiovascular events. The researchers speculate that this could be related to stress reduction that comes with sexual activity and the psychological well-being that reinforces bonds with their partners.

Results for men, however, were quite different. Results showed 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.

Other research shows that seniors who are sexually active have less pain, better bladder control, and possibly less risk of certain cancers, including prostate cancer. 

Do what works for you

“Keep in mind that sexuality is not just about the sex act,” FitzPatrick says. “It also involves romance, dating, and partnership. If you have a long-term partner, take time to enjoy each other and understand the changes you both are facing.”