Oldies who have sex happier and healthier, says new study

Who says sex is just for younger people? A new study gives this popular belief the lie, showing that while older people may have less frequent sex, it is still important for their happiness and physical health.

Neither do they lack the motivation or physical capability, as many think. The study titled, 'Sexual Activity is Associated with Greater Enjoyment of Life in Older Adults', is published in the journal Sexual Medicine.

Subjective wellbeing is an important parameter for health, both physical and mental. This includes a host of aspects, including good feelings of happiness and pleasure, and satisfaction with life, as well as feeling positive about the meaning of life or one’s purpose. Experienced wellbeing is one of the best known aspects of this measure. It is linked to health, happiness and protection against heart disease as well as a 35% lower chance of death.

Sexual Activity is Associated with Greater Enjoyment of Life in Older Adults. Image Credit: Wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock
Sexual Activity is Associated with Greater Enjoyment of Life in Older Adults. Image Credit: Wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock

About the study

The UK-based researchers found that sexual activity tends to become less frequent with age. Thus at the age of 60-69 years, 85% of men enjoyed sexual activity, corresponding to 60% and 32 % of men in their seventies and eighties.

Women did experience less sexual activity than men as they grew older. However, neither men nor women wanted to give it up as they aged. This is backed by similar studies in the US. Men and women have different criteria for a positive sex life, characterized by increased frequency in men and increased enjoyment in women.

The researchers surveyed over 5,000 older people, in a rough 2:3 ratio. The questions asked included frequency of sex and other sexual activities, any reduction in sexual desire over the past year, sexual satisfaction, and the ability to have an erection or sexual arousal for men and women respectively. Enjoyment of life was also assessed using the CASP-19 (Control, Autonomy, Self-realization, and Pleasure) score.

Confounding factors like smoking, chronic illness, and alcohol intake were also asked for. About 75% and 60% of the participants were either married or living with a partner. The mean age was 64-65 years.

What the study found

The current study shows a distinct correlation between sex in older people and their continuing health. Men with lower sexual desire were at a greater risk of subsequent chronic illness, including cancer, with limited daily activity.

Both men and women who had less frequent sex (less than twice a month), were at a higher risk for experiencing less satisfaction with their current level of health. Erectile dysfunction was also connected with cancer or heart disease.

Of course, the correlations could be reverse: the lower libido and erectile function could be because of the unseen disease process already at work in the body, even though undiagnosed.

Lower sexual interest in women is possibly related to post-menopausal low hormone levels, and also due to the increased lifespan in women which makes them more likely to survive the death of their spouse, at which point they generally find it difficult to get new partners.

Sexually active older people also experience greater enjoyment of life, as opposed to a lower sense of wellbeing among those who aren’t. Frequency of sexual intercourse is more important in promoting a sense of wellbeing in men. However, more frequent non-sexual touching like kissing or petting is linked to greater sense of wellbeing in both groups, but more in women than in men. Cognitive skills are also higher in the former group of men.  

Why does this happen?

Of course, sex does produce a surge of endorphins which makes one feel elated. However, it’s not only about the feeling. More endorphin production also activates the immune system, helping the body fight off infections and cancers more effectively.

The intimacy that accompanies a sexually active partnership is no small part of the benefit, since emotionally close relationships are always linked to higher mental health.

And finally, the physical benefits of sex: it burns up about four calories a minute, which is a small gain for fitness.

How to encourage sex in older people

The importance of sex should be discussed with delicacy and tact with older people, encouraging them to try out newer ways as they become ever more comfortable with their partners.

While physical issues may limit certain positions that were normal before, they may need encouragement to experimentally find newer and more risk-free positions in which they can continue this important part of their normal lives.

Such education and discussion is often lacking, with both healthcare educators and providers shying away from the topic. However, this kind of openness is key to helping older couples live with more passion and health even as they age.

Journal reference:

Sexual activity is associated with greater enjoyment of life in older adults. Lee Smith, Lin Yang, Nicola Veronese, Pinar Soysal, Brendon Stubbs, & Sarah E. Jackson. Sexual Medicine. Volume 7, Issue 1, March 2019, Pages 11-18. Sexual Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.esxm.2018.11.001. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2050116118301119

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.

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