Let’s Talk About Sex (in Later Life)

| Health and Wellness

Cheerful elderly woman hugging her husband

Let’s Talk About Sex (in Later Life)

Seniors, how’s your sex life? We don’t mean to make you blush – but we do think it’s time to dispel some myths. Contrary to popular belief, sex doesn’t simply end at a certain age. Plenty of older adults enjoy physical intimacy – but social taboos often prevent people from acknowledging it. Even worse, ageist attitudes may discourage seniors from discussing sex and sexual health with their romantic partner or health-care providers.

How many older adults are sexually active? In 2018, researchers at the University of Michigan polled 1,002 people aged 65 to 80 about sex and relationships. Forty percent said they were sexually active (46% of people aged 65 to 70, 39% of those aged 71 to 75, and 25% of those aged 76 to 80). About half of the men were sexually active, and about a third of the women. Just over half of all respondents agreed that “Sex is important to my overall quality of life,” and three-quarters agreed that sex is an important part of a romantic relationship at any age.

Other studies have yielded a range of results, in part because the definition of “sexual activity” varies (some ask only about intercourse, while others include kissing, petting and fondling). But what they all confirm is that a lot of older adults enjoy physical intimacy. Yet, too often, seniors are presumed to be uninterested in sex, or they’re judged negatively for expressing interest.

The happiness connection

Why is it important to talk openly about seniors and sex, and for older adults to feel comfortable about expressing their sexuality? Sexual activity in later life is linked to greater happiness and well-being.

A study published in the journal Sexual Medicine in 2019 offered several insights into the sex lives of seniors. Researchers surveyed thousands of people aged 50 and older, and here’s what they found:

  • Sexual activity was associated with greater enjoyment of life, and “a frequent and problem-free sex life” is linked to improved well-being.
  • The less often seniors have sex, the more likely they are to experience health problems.
  • Older men who are sexually active have better cognitive performance than those who don’t.

In a press release, one of the lead researchers, Lee Smith, stated, “The findings of our study suggest that it may be beneficial for physicians to query geriatric patients about their sexual activity and offer help for sexual difficulties, as sexual activity helps older people live more fulfilling lives.”

How intimacy changes with age

Our bodies change in many ways as we get older. These are common changes that can affect physical intimacy:

Men: Testosterone levels decrease over time, starting around age 30. This leads to slower sexual response, difficulty with getting or maintaining an erection, and a longer pause between erections. It may take longer to climax. Some men experience erectile dysfunction, meaning they can’t sustain an erection firm enough to have intercourse.

Women: Estrogen levels decrease as women approach menopause. This can cause physical changes such as slower sexual arousal, vaginal dryness, thinner vaginal walls that may feel irritated during intercourse, and shorter, less intense orgasms.

Health issues such as a heart condition, high blood pressure, diabetes or joint problems can also affect a person’s sex life. Certain medications can also affect sexual desire and response. Sometimes, sexual difficulties have no clear cause; an undiagnosed health problem may be to blame. In addition, both men and women can experience emotional challenges that affect their sexual function and desire, such as stress, depression or anxiety. Many people also feel less confident about their physical appearance as their bodies change over time.

If you’re worried about how physical and emotional factors affect your sex life, don’t ignore the situation. Speak to your physician, who can address your concerns and, if you wish, discuss interventions that can help keep the passion alive, such as medications, lubricants or counselling. (If your physician is unwilling to discuss your sexual health, it’s time to find another physician!)

Good communication with your romantic partner is essential. If certain sexual positions or practices have become difficult, explore new ways to excite and please each other. Expand the way you think about sex and intimacy. After all, it’s often said that the brain is the most important sexual organ.

And remember, safe sex practices are important at any age. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are on the rise among older adults. If you have questions about sexual health, talk to your physician or check out the resources below.

Additional Resources

Age, Sex and You: the website for older adults
Sharron Hinchliff, a psychologist at the University of Sheffield, created this website to provide evidence-based information about the sexual changes that occur with age.

Sexuality and Physical Changes With Aging
This encouraging article offers suggestions for “staying sexual” as people age.

Attitudes about sexuality and aging
This article from Harvard Medical School debunks common myths about sexuality in later life.

AARP provides helpful info about sex and dating after age 50.

Safer Sex Guide
This is a reliable source of information about preventing sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as chlamydia, hepatitis, herpes, HIV and more.

Bayshore Home Health offers a wide range of home care services to help Canadians live independently for as long as possible. Call 1-877-289-3997 for details.