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Health Discovery: Talking About Sexual Problems Eases Men’s Anxiety

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— Eric O'connell/Getty Images

En español | Talking about sexual problems with a spouse or friend helps men feel better, but the same isn’t true of women.

“Most people presume that men don’t talk about their problems and so they underestimate the importance of a man’s close relationships,” says Oregon State University gerontologist Alexis Walker, coauthor of a study that looked at how older couples deal with their anxiety about sexual concerns. “It helps men to confide in others.”

Surprisingly, the same doesn’t hold true for women. “We expected women to discuss these problems with a spouse or close friends,” says Walker, “but they didn’t.” On the contrary, women who experienced higher levels of distress about sexual problems and shared their feelings with friends reported being less happy. “That was unexpected,” says Walker. “We thought that talking about their concerns with someone close would make them feel better; we don’t know why it didn’t. We’re at a loss.”

The researchers also found that fewer than half of older men and women with sexual problems talked it over with a doctor—and when they did many of them concluded that it didn’t help.

The researchers analyzed data from the National Social Life, Aging and Health Project, which includes more than 3,000 interviews with men and women ages 57 to 85. This study focused on 861 people who were either married or had an intimate partner and who reported having at least one sexual problem such as lack of interest in sex, difficulty maintaining an erection, inability to reach climax, lubrication issues or physical pain during sex. The study did not look at whether confiding in someone solved the problem, only if it helped ease the related unhappiness and distress.

That raises the question of why so few men and women talk with their doctors about sexual concerns. St. Louis University geriatrician John Morley, M.D., who was not associated with this study, has a blunt answer. “Most doctors are uncomfortable dealing with older people’s sexuality.”

The study was published online on April 5 in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences.

Nissa Simon writes about health and science in New Haven, Conn.

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