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Older Americans Have Active Sex Lives
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Sexually Active Older People Have Sex as Often as Younger People
Daniel J. DeNoon
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
Aug. 22, 2007 -- Though half report bothersome sexual problems, sexually active Americans aged 57-85 have sex as often as those aged 18-59.
The findings come from a nationally representative sample of 3,005 U.S. residents. They show that sexual intimacy remains an important part of most people's lives as they age, says researcher Stacy Tessler Lindau, MD, of the University of Chicago.
"Many older and younger men and women make the choice not to be sexually active. But the majority of people, young and old, do engage in sexuality," Lindau said at a news conference.
How sexually activeare older Americans?
"An interesting finding is among those sexually active, the frequency we saw of sex two or three times a month or more is not different from 18- to 59-year-olds," Lindau said. "So if one has a partner, the frequency of sex does not change a lot between age groups."
It is people's health -- not their age -- that ultimately limits their sexual activity, says researcher Edward O. Laumann, PhD, of the University of Chicago.
Sexual inactivity is "much more a consequence of health than otherwise," Laumann said at the news conference. "When sexual health begins to deteriorate, it is an important warning sign of more profound health problems."
Inevitably, aging people do reach a point at which sex becomes increasingly rare, says researcher Linda J. Waite, PhD, of the University of Chicago.
"The one thing that surprised me was that among the oldest adults with sex partners, only a minority reported being sexually active," Waite said at the news conference. "There seems to be a point in people's lives when their health declines. They become frail, and -- although still partnered -- they are not having any kind of sexual activity. That is an important part of the picture of sexuality in older ages."
Sex After 60: Key Findings
During the survey, trained researchers interviewed subjects, administered questionnaires asking intimate questions, and obtained medical data including blood, saliva, and vaginal swab samples.
The survey unearthed what Lindau calls "a gold mine" of data on the sexuality of Americans aged 57-85. Some key facts:
Healthy Sex at Older Ages
The survey suggests that most people eventually will have to negotiate sexual problems as the age, says John H.J. Bancroft, MD, director emeritus and senior research fellow at theKinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Indiana University, Bloomington.
An editorial by Bancroft, the author of the landmark book Human Sexuality and Its Problems, accompanies the Lindau study in the Aug. 23 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.
Bancroft says that relationships and mental health are more important predictors of sexual well-being than physical troubles with sexual arousal and sexual response.
"A key and fundamental issue is, when older men start to lose the ability for erections, how should they adapt to that? Obviously, this depends on the partner. So there is a need for negotiation," Bancroft tells WebMD.
One option is for the couple to shift the emphasis away from erections to sexual intimacy that does not require an erection. But this may be difficultfor some people -- men in particular.
"We live in a very phallocentric society in which men grow up to focus on their erections as being all-important," Bancroft says. "Here is an important difference between men and women. What the penis is doing is much more central to the man's sexual experience than the woman's genitalia are to hers. She tends to focus on her feelings."
An informed doctor, Bancroft says, can help couples explore forms of sexual intimacy that do not always require a male erection.
"The approach to sex therapy that I and others use gets couples to work through stages: working with touch at first, and vaginal entry only at the later stages," he says. "And a lot can happen in those really early stages in terms of touching and feeling close and intimacy."
A second issue, Bancroft says, is that both men and women find it more difficult to reach orgasm as they age.
"What is desirable, and what I encourage any couple to do, is to look for ways to enjoy physical intimacy without having the same expectations they had when they were younger," he advises. "Much of the bonding effect of physical intimacy does not depend on sex. Indeed, intimacy can be enhanced for couples that can embrace changes rather than be threatened by them."
SOURCES: Lindau, S.T. The New England Journal of Medicine, Aug. 23, 2007; vol 357: pp 762-774. Bancroft, J.H.J. The New England Journal of Medicine, Aug. 23, 2007; vol 357: pp 820-822. News conference with Stacy Tessler Lindau, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and of medicine-geriatrics, University of Chicago; Linda Waite, PhD, director, Center for Aging, University of Chicago; Edward Laumann, PhD, professor of sociology, University of Chicago; and Georgeanne Patmios, PhD, chief, Population and Social Processes Branch, National Institute of Aging, NIH, Bethesda, Md. John H.J. Bancroft, MD, director emeritus and senior research fellow, Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Indiana University, Bloomington.
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