When the news splashed all over the media today that older adults are, indeed, having sex, my first reaction was to laugh and say, “Duhhh!” The idea that senior sex is alive seemed to me as much a news story as the revelation that most people find feet at the end of their legs!
But there was much more to the story. “A Study of Sexuality and Health among Older Adults in the United States,” published today in the New England Journal of Medicine, was a major study of 3005 U.S. adults (1550 women and 1455 men) 57 to 85 years of age which revealed some fascinating facts and a few surprises:
The majority of older adults are sexually active and regard sexuality as an important part of life. The prevalence of sexual activity declines with age, yet a substantial number of men and women engage in vaginal intercourse, oral sex, and masturbation even in the eighth and ninth decades of life.The frequency of sexual activity reported by sexually active older adults (age 57+) is similar to the frequency reported among adults 18 to 59 years of age.The study reported that 78% of men 75 to 85 years of age, as compared with 40% of women in this age group, had a spousal or intimate relationship. Since women live longer, and on average, older men marry younger women, this disparity can be accounted for by the lack of available men for the older single women. The sexually active people in the oldest age group interviewed — 75 to 85 years of age — reported having sex at least two to three times per month, and 23% reported having sex once a week or more.About half of the sexually active men and women reported at least one “bothersome sexual problem,” and almost one third reported having multiple problems. The women’s most prevalent sexual problems were low desire, difficulty with vaginal lubrication, inability to climax, finding sex not pleasurable , and pain, usually during entry. The most prevalent sexual problems for men were erectile difficulty (14% of all men interviewed reported using medication or supplements to improve sexual function), lack of interest in sex, climaxing too quickly, anxiety about performance, and inability to climax. About one quarter of sexually active older adults with a sexual problem reported avoiding sex as a consequence.
Most surprising, given the extent of these problems that prevented sex from being satisfying or pleasurable, was this fact:
Only 38% of men and 22% of women reported having discussed sex with a physician since the age of 50.
The study suggests that the reasons for poor communication include the unwillingness of both patients and physicians to talk about sex and the gender and age differences between patients and their physicians.
Negative societal attitudes about women’s sexuality and sexuality at older ages may also inhibit such discussions.
When I give workshops and talks, both women and men frequently bring up physical problems that affect their sexuality and want me to provide a solution. I always say, “Please get a diagnosis from your doctor.” I emphasize that the problem may be caused by retreating hormones, or by an underlying health condition that you don’t know you have, or a medication, or interactions of medications. You can’t treat a problem until you know what’s causing it.
As the NEJM article states,
Sexual problems may be a warning sign or consequence of a serious underlying illness such as diabetes, an infection, urogenital tract conditions, or cancer. Undiagnosed or untreated sexual problems, or both, can lead to or occur with depression or social withdrawal. Patients may discontinue needed medications because of side effects that affect their sex lives, and medications to treat sexual problems can also have negative health effects, yet physician–patient communication about sexuality is poor.
I invite your comments!