More aged people are having sex than you thought

24 August, 2007:

The drop in sexual activity in old age is caused more by poor health rather than lack of sexual desire.

This came to light in a wide-ranging study of sexuality and health among older adults in the United States.

The survey, conducted between July 2005 and March 2006, is based on the responses of 1,550 men and 1,455 women between the ages of 57 and 85 who were asked about social and marital history, sexual activity and function, and physical and mental health.

The survey found that many men and women remain sexually active, participating in vaginal intercourse, oral sex and masturbation in their 60s, 70s, and 80s.

It also revealed that older adults retain an interest in and need for sexual fulfillment, even as sexual experience becomes more physically problematic.

The study has been published in the August 23, 2007, issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

The frequency of sexual activity among the group under study was similar to that reported among those aged 18 to 59 in a 1992 National Health and Social Life Survey.

Though sexual activity does decline with age, it is usually the result of not having an intimate partner or experiencing problems with physical health, the researchers found.

Stacey Lindau, gynecologist of the University of Chicago, who led the study, says: “Physical health is more strongly associated with many sexual problems than is age alone. If you have a partner, the frequency of sexual activity doesn’t change that much across age groups.”

Researchers believe that the findings could provide an important incentive for doctors to discuss sexual activity with their aging patients.

According to Georgeanne Patmios, of the National Institute on Aging and a partner in the study, this is a public-health issue because sexual problems may be a warning sign or consequence of an underlying health issue.

Women with diabetes were less likely to be sexually active, the study found, and men with the disease often suffered erectile difficulties.

Physicians should be aware of this connection, Dr Lindau says, and also take into account that older men and women may stop taking medication for other ailments if it negatively affects their sex lives. “If we regard older people as asexual, we really miss an opportunity to do important counselling and interventions,” she adds.

However, few doctors are having those conversations. Of those surveyed, only 38% of men and 22% of women over 50 had discussed sex with their doctors.

Dr Lindau suggests that physicians ask aged patients if they are sexually active, how their sex lives are going, or if there is anything preventing them from having sex.

The most commonly reported reason for sexual inactivity among individuals with a partner was the male partner’s physical health.

The number of older adults engaging in sexual activity may be surprising for younger generations. Even among the oldest respondents – those between the ages of 75 and 85 – 54% of sexually active persons reported having sex at least two to three times a month, and 23% reported having sex once a week or more.

And, 58% of sexually active respondents in the youngest age group – between 57 and 64 – reported engaging in oral sex within the past 12 months, as did 31% in the oldest age group.

Overall, 52% of men and 25% of women in a relationship reported masturbating in the past 12 months, as did 55% of men and 23% of women who were single.

However, there were some differences between respondents depending on gender.

Women were more likely than men to rate sex as “not at all important” (35% of women compared with 13% of men), and 41% of respondents in the oldest age group also described sex as unimportant.

Among those surveyed, more men than women reported having had a sexual experience in the previous 12 months. This is explained by the fact that men tend to have younger partners, according to Dr Lindau. This could also mean that more female respondents were widowed, or involved with partners whose advanced age meant they had more serious health problems.

Linda Waite, co-director of the Center on Demography and Economics of Aging at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, another partner in the study, said the results would have more relevance as the number of people over the age of 60 increases.




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