Lack of sexual activity in older adults linked to health problems

The lack of sexual activity and function among older adults is linked to poorer health outcomes, including cancer, coronary heart disease (CHD), and fair or poor self-rated health, a new sexual science study found.

Over the last years, life expectancy in high-income countries has increased. For instance, a boy born in 1900 was expected to live in 46.3 years, and a girl to 48.3 years. However, by 2016, life expectancies increased to 76.3 and 81.2 years. But, with the increased life expectancy, is a parallel rise in years lived with adverse health outcomes and disability.

A team of researchers at the Anglia Ruskin University wanted to understand the factors that may contribute to poor health. They believe that one key behavior that may affect health in later life is sexual activity, which received little attention over the last years.

Image Credit: Lightspring / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Lightspring / Shutterstock

Commonly, people know that when they grow older, they become asexual, with loss of interest in sex and the capacity for sexual behavior. However, sexual activity does not decline with age, and it remains a prevalent behavior. Hence, determining if sexual activity has an overall effect on the health outcomes of people is essential.

To arrive at their findings, the researchers used data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) over a four-year period between 2013 and 2017. The participants in ELSA were men and women aged 50 and older living in England.

In the first wave of the study in 2002, the participants were recruited from an annual cross-sectional survey of households. The study wanted to explore and examine the health, lifestyles, and financial situation of people as they grow older. They followed up the participants every two years. The present study, however, used data from Wave 6, between 2012 and 2013, where sexual relationships and activities were assessed.

Sexual activity linked to health outcomes

Overall, they acquired information from more than 5,700 individuals and found that men who have less sexual intercourse and activity if they’re 50 years old and above may have a two-thirds increased risk of developing serious illness.

Meanwhile, women had a 64 percent higher risk to report having ill health if they have sex less often. However, there is no apparent marked increase in the risk of serious illness. Mem who become less interested in sex are 63 percent more likely to be diagnosed with cancer and had a 41 percent increased risk of developing chronic illness.

In terms of coronary heart disease, men who reported a decline in sexual desire had 33 percent higher odds of reporting a diagnosis of CHD at baseline than those who reported stable or increased sexual desire. Plus, those who reported a decrease in sexual desire had a 41 percent increased risk of incident limiting long-standing illness and 63 percent higher odds of incident cancer.

Men who said they had a decline in sexual activity frequency had 47 percent increased risk of self-rated health deterioration, while those who reported a decrease in their ability to have an erection, had 66 percent higher risk of self-rated health deterioration.

Therefore, a past-year decline in sexuality, including desire, activity and the ability to have an erection in men, was linked to problems in a broad range of health outcomes. The frequency of sexual intercourse and activities was associated with a decline in self-rated health for both men and women.

The role of endorphins in health

There are many mechanisms that can explain the phenomenon. First, during sexual intercourse, the body releases endorphins, which are opioid peptides that act as neurotransmitters. Endorphins are “happy” hormones because they cause a happy or blissful feeling.

When there are increased endorphin levels in the body, they become natural killers of cancer cells. Circulating endorphin levels may be linked to a lower risk of cancer and even other pathogens, like viruses and bacteria. Second, sex is considered physical activity and a form of exercise.

“This is the first study to investigate the cross-sectional and longitudinal associations between a decline in sexuality (sexual desire, frequency of sexual activity, and sexual function) and health problems in a large representative sample of older adults,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

“Strengths of the study include the large representative sample of English older adults and adjustment for a range of sociodemographic and health-related confounders,” they added.

The study was published in Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Journal reference:

Jackson, S., Yang, L., Koyanagi, A., Stubbs, B., Veronese, N., and Smith, L. (2019). Declines in Sexual Activity and Function Predict Incident Health Problems in Older Adults: Prospective Findings from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Written by

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She is currently completing her Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and worked as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.


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