By Kathy Gaillard
It is time to dispel some of the myths about sex and aging. Society tends to place a stigma on older adults who talk about or engage in sex, sometimes referring to them derogatorily as horny old broads or dirty old men. Consequently, sexual intimacy among older Americans is a subject that many people avoid.
The silence, say experts, allows misconceptions and myths to breed — including the widespread assumption that seniors lose interest in sex and are, or should be, asexual. Recent studies are helping to dispel those myths.
Some of the myths that are associated with the subject of sex and aging include:
• Impotence is a natural consequence of aging.
• Sexual activity can be dangerous for the elderly.
• The sex drive or libido diminishes with advancing years for both men and women.
One recent, unprecedented study conducted of older adults and sex reveals that many seniors are not only sexually frisky, but also willing to engage in intimacy and discuss it with others. For some younger folks that may be TMI (too much information), but it’s true!
In the most comprehensive sex survey ever conducted among 57 to 85 year olds in the United States, while sex and interest in it may wane when seniors are in their 70s, more than a quarter of those reported having sex up to age 85. The study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2013, surveyed some 3,000 men and women across the country.
It involved a two-hour, face-to-face interview and taking blood, saliva and other samples to determine hormone levels. Some of the surprising results are that:
• Seniors whose health was excellent or very good were twice as likely to be sexually active as those in poor or fair health.
• Women were less likely to be sexually active then men, but they also lacked partners because far more women than men were widowed.
• Seventy-six percent of older adults, ages 57 to 64 reported having sex with a partner within the previous year; 53 percent of those between the ages of 64 to 75 had sex and 26 percent of the individuals between the ages of 75 to 85 reported engaging in sexual activity.
The survey also found some truth to the old adage “use it or lose it.” Researchers found that individuals in their 40s who slacked off having sex, found it more difficult to continue into their later years, while those who remained sexually active reported enjoying sex well into their 60s and 70s.
Geriatrics expert, Dr. Walter M. Bortz and author of three books on healthy aging as well as several studies on seniors’ sexuality said, “If you stay interested, stay healthy, stay off medications, and have a good mate, then you can have good sex all the way to the end of life.”
And, while not everyone wants or needs an active sex life, many people continue to be sexual all their lives. “There’s strong data all over: It’s a matter of survival,” says Dr. Bortz. “People that have sex live longer. Married people live longer. People need people. The more intimate the connection, the more powerful the effects.”
As the baby boom generation ages, with their increased numbers and a marked increase in life expectancy, the topic of sex is becoming less taboo.
A clear majority of men and women age 45 and up say a satisfying sexual relationship is important to their quality of life, according to a survey by the AARP. Among 45- to 59-year-olds with sexual partners, some 56 percent said they had sexual intercourse once a week or more.
Among 60- to 70-year-olds with partners, 46 percent of men and 38 percent of women have sex at least once a week, as did 34 percent of those 70 or older. Similar findings emerged in a survey conducted by the National Council on the Aging (NCOA). The study found that nearly half of all Americans age 60 or over have sex at least once a month and that nearly half also wanted to have sex more frequently. Another interesting finding: people find their mates more physically attractive over time.
Both men and women can expect normal physiological changes as they age that may affect the way they experience sex. Experts say these changes are not usually a barrier to enjoying a healthy sex life, but couples may have to take more time for arousal. For example, postmenopausal women, have lower levels of the hormone estrogen, which increases vaginal dryness and elasticity. In many cases, this can be relieved by something as simple as using over-the-counter lubricants.
Doctors can also offer other remedies for more difficult cases. Men may suffer from impotence or have more difficulty achieving and sustaining arousals as their blood circulation slows and testosterone levels decrease. Impotence is also more prevalent in men who have a history of heart disease, hypertension, or diabetes.
For men, “biology or hydraulics” is the biggest deterrent to sex later in life, says Dr. Bortz. “For women, it’s opportunity and availability.”
Finding a partner can be difficult for older women who are widowed, divorced, or single.
According to several reports, women make up the majority of the elderly without partners. The reasons: women live longer than men, and healthy older men tend to pair up with younger women.
Older women are also judged by society as less attractive than their male counterparts—an obvious double standard.
This “partner gap” greatly inhibits women’s social and sexual activity as they reach their senior years. In the AARP study, only 32 percent of women 70 or older have partners, compared with 59 percent of men in the same age group. In the NCOA study, older men are more likely than older women to be married and have sex partners.