Survey shows sexual health important component of overall well being for midlife and beyond

Sexual health is an essential element of the quality of life of adults 45+. AARP's recent study, Sexuality at Midlife and Beyond, updates an AARP survey from 1999, and confirms that relationships and sexuality remain at least as important, if not more so, than almost six years ago. Findings from the study are being explored in the July/August issue of AARP The Magazine.

The 2004 study focuses on almost 1,700 adults ages 45 and older and measures attitudes and other factors affecting their health, sexuality, and quality of life. It offers frank viewpoints and revelations of three-quarters of the 78 million Baby Boomers - women and men ages 45-59 - as well as individuals in their 60's, 70's, and older.

What has changed since the 1999 study? For starters there is more use of sex-enhancing drugs and greater openness to speaking to health professionals about this sensitive health topic.

  • More people now report consulting health professionals than any other single source of information (37% up from 26% in 1999). Books were the top choice in 1999 and now place second at 30%.
  • More than twice as many men as in 1999 report ever using some type of drugs or treatments to address problems with sexual performance (22%, up from 10% in 1999).
  • More respondents now agree that sexual activity is a critical part of a good relationship - 60% compared to 55% in 1999.

"If I could highlight one significant change from over the past five years, it would be the greater willingness of midlife and older adults to discuss sex as a health issue with their health professionals," said Linda Fisher, research director at AARP. "Professionals have long known that sexual dysfunction is not only a major problem for relationships and mental health, but can be a marker of life-threatening physical health issues, especially heart disease."

"We also know that healthy and physically active respondents are generally more satisfied with their sex lives than those with a medical condition. Thirty-one percent (31%) of men said better health for themselves would increase their satisfaction with their sex life and 23% said better health for their partner would increase their satisfaction," said Fisher.

And speaking of partners, there has been a "re-awakening" for many women. Thanks to their male partners' use of drugs women in all age groups reported that their own sexual satisfaction was enhanced. "We found that women are pleased with their mates' newfound ardor, debunking the cultural stereotype that older women aren't welcoming of intimate and sexual relationships," said Hugh Delehanty, editor in chief of AARP The Magazine.

However, despite many respondents' progressive feelings about sex, most remained steadfastly traditional when it came to fidelity. More than 95% of all respondents said that they did not approve of any form of extramarital sex without a partner's consent.

They also agree with their Mom and Dad that today's popular culture puts too much emphasis on sex.

"Although many boomers came of age during the sexual revolution, we shouldn't necessarily see a contradiction in their attitudes toward fidelity," said Delehanty. "Boomers are open about sex, but, it is important to remember that this survey also found many saying that good spirits, good health, close ties with friends and family and spiritual well-being were more important to their quality of lives than sex. And marital infidelity often undermines all of these things," said Delehanty.

Other notable findings:

  • Sixty-three percent (63%) of men and women with partners described themselves as either "extremely satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied" with their sex lives.
  • Nearly one-third of men and women with partners ranked their sex life somewhere between "yawn" and "bloody awful."
  • Still, mediocre sex was better than none at all. Almost 40% of men without regular sex partners and 15% of women without regular sex partners rated their sex lives at the bottom of the satisfaction scale.

In addition to the landmark study and supporting articles in the magazine, AARP The Magazine relationship advice columnist Sallie Foley has written Sex & Love for Grownups: A No-Nonsense Guide to a Life of Passion. The book is based on the thousands of letters that the magazine receives from readers looking for advice in their love lives. More about the book can be found on www.aarpmagazine.org along with column archives, a personal ad maker, forums, and audio and video clips from long-married couples.

AARP commissioned TNS NFO from March-April 2004 to conduct a survey of adults 45+ to understand the factors affecting sexuality and the quality of life of mid-life and older adults, and at the same time, to compare results to the 1999 Sexuality Study. The survey was conducted by a combination of telephone and mail methodologies. The total number of respondents nationwide was 1,682 from the general population sample and 1,248 from the augment samples.

From U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, M.D., Ph.D.:

I commend AARP for addressing an issue that is vital to the health and wellbeing of all Americans, old and young. Sexual health is a sensitive subject for many people, including health care providers, to talk about. This AARP study, "Sexuality at Midlife: 2004 Update of Attitudes and Behaviors (May 23, 2005)," contributes to our understanding of sexuality and sexual health.

Many believe that sexuality is the exclusive province of the young. But, this AARP study makes clear that, even as we age, sexual health continues to be important to our general health.

From a public health perspective, it is clear from CDC studies that people in this age category are at significant risk for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, the impact of sexual health on the quality of life of people as they age is so critical and relates to one of the goals of healthy people 2010.

The good news from this AARP survey is that more men and women in midlife and older are turning to health professionals to improve their sexual health. This means however, that health professionals must be increasingly better prepared to deal with issues related to sexual health.

The troubling news from this AARP survey is that many midlife and older Americans are not receiving treatment for a variety of illnesses and conditions that may affect their sexual health as part of their overall health and well-being.

I am sure that this AARP study will open up further public dialogue on the importance of sexual health to the old as well as the young. Moreover, if it is widely publicized, this study will help professionals, as well as patients to discuss issues of sexual health more effectively.

From certified sex therapist and educator Sallie Foley:

The AARP study "Sexuality at Midlife and Beyond" is both informative and enlighting. Adults at 45 and beyond are concerned about the quality of their lives and that includes the quality of their relationships and sexual functioning. Many are engaged in regular sexual activities and count it as one of life's important pleasures.

The AARP survey highlights that when people have difficulties with sexual functioning, they are turning to health care professionals and other resources to seek answers for their questions. If health problems arise, it is important for health care providers to be knowledgeable about ways for individuals to continue sexual activity when there are physical limitations. Both health care providers and patients are in need of further education about this. In addition, older adults must be made aware of the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases through sexual activity so that they are more responsible in their sexual behavior.

Older adults are committed to their relationships, their health and their well being, they are open to new information including info about healthy sexual function. The AARP study provides a significant contribution to understanding sexuality for adults at midlife and beyond by dismantling stereotypes and explaining what real people are thinking about their lives.

(AARP The Magazine relationship advice columnist Sallie Foley has written Sex & Love for Grownups: A No-Nonsense Guide to a Life of Passion)

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The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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