We Need To Talk More About Older People's Sex Lives — Here's Why
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
People in their senior years deserve satisfying sex lives just like anyone else, but oftentimes a combination of physical impediments and social stigmas can get in the way of being able to pursue that. A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE found nearly 60 percent of older people are unhappy with their sex lives, and the researchers are urging health care providers to step up to the plate when it comes to helping this age group with their most intimate needs.
What stands in the way of older people having a great sex life?
Researchers analyzed health and lifestyle data on over 3,000 people between ages 55 and 74, in addition to interviewing them in person to get a sense of what their sex lives were like and what factors affected it. They found 54 percent of women and 62 percent of men were sexually active in the past six months, and 42 percent of men and women reported being satisfied with their sex lives.
What separated people with happy sex lives from those with less fulfilling ones?
Some findings were fairly obvious: The folks who had been having sex were more likely to say they were happy with their sex lives, and people in steady relationships were way more likely to be having sex and to be sexually satisfied, as were people who reported being in good health. Indeed, 27 percent of men and 17 percent of women reported having a health condition that impaired their sex lives.
The most important finding? Older people who had support from others regarding their sex life were much more likely to be sexually active (and thus satisfied). For men, being able to use medication to boost their sex life made a big difference. For women, "finding it easy to talk to their regular partner about sex" made them more likely to have it. For both men and women, seeking advice and getting help regarding their sex life also tended to boost their sexual activity—yet just one in four had actually done so.
"We identified that not many people who reported experiencing problems or lack of satisfaction sought help," said Bob Erens, lead author of the study and a researcher and professor with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, in a news release. "Although this could be an individual choice or because of a perceived lack of support, it is vital that individuals feel able to make enquiries with health care professionals. In particular, discussing problems can often lead to identification of underlying medical conditions."
Sexual satisfaction is important for your health—especially for older adults.
Sex comes with loads of physical and mental health benefits: It reduces your risk of heart attacks and certain types of cancer, boosts your memory and other cognitive functions, reduces your blood pressure, strengthens your immune system, and can actually make you live longer. For older adults especially, a lot of those are precious assets.
Cardiologist and mbg Collective member Joel Kahn, M.D., all but prescribes sex for optimal health: "Although discussing frequent sex may bring up issues of legal, moral, and religious guidelines—not to mention other health concerns associated with sex itself—the act itself appears to be quite healthy and possibly a path to extending life span and avoiding common diseases," he writes at mbg. "The ability to successfully engage in sex and orgasm indicates a healthy cardiovascular system, and it can be a form of exercise."
There's also the social component: Sex makes you get intimate with others and floods your system with bonding hormones, all of which can make you feel closer to your partner and reduce feelings of loneliness. Past research has found having sex improves older adults' well-being, making them have more joy in their lives.
Sex is for everyone.
It's important to note that some older people (like people of any age) aren't having sex because they don't want to be having sex. Indeed, for women in particular, the study noted, "Health problems provided a welcome respite from sex." If that's you—more power to you! No need to push at something you're just not interested in.
But if your age, health, or stigmas about older people having sex have deterred you from exploring your intimacy, there's no time like the present to change that. Talk to your doctor or any trusted health provider about your sexual needs. Many people in the study mentioned feeling like they had so many other health problems to worry about, and they didn't want to bother their doctor by asking about sex. Nonsense! Your sexual well-being is a part of your health, no matter your age, and having a satisfying sex life can contribute to your overall physical, mental, and relationship well-being.
If you've got a health problem that's been making sex difficult for you, talk to your doctor about the options—or find a sex therapist, sexual healer, or other professional you trust to talk through your intimacy needs. Everybody deserves to have a satisfying sex life, whatever that might mean for you.
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