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Love, American Style

France is the land of lovers, n'est ce pas? Au contraire. A new AARP poll shows that older Americans are more passionately in love than the amorous French.

Ah, to be young and in love. There's nothing better—except to be older and in love.

Meet Randy Wilson, 60, a financial strategist in Raleigh, North Carolina, and his wife, Simone, a 56-year-old artist. Simone is telling the spark-filled story of the night they met. "I was doing a two-step with my dad at this funky bar, and this big ol' Texan asked me to dance," recalls Simone. "For me, it was all over at first sight." Randy strokes her cheek. "I'm still head over heels," he says.

So sweet. And the still-sizzling Wilsons are not, it turns out, romantic rarities—at least not in America.

How do we know? It started with a recent French survey, which found that 71 percent of French citizens ages 50 to 64 are "currently in love." In our winning-is-everything American style, we wondered how the United States stacks up, because we all know the stereotypes: the French love romance and Americans love money; they're poetry-spouting romantics whereas we're red-white-and-prude fuddy-duddies; they hold each other and we hold the television remote.

So in late summer 2009, AARP asked a nationally representative group of 2,000 Americans-ages 18 to 65-plus-several questions about love. And oui, mesdames et messieurs, we are the United States of Amour. Older Americans score just as high as the French on the ardor scale: 70 percent of our 50- to 64-year-olds reported being currently in love. And Americans 65-plus are actually more romantic than the French. Sixty-three percent of them claimed to be in love, compared with 46 percent of the French. We're also enjoying more intense love: 55 percent of Americans ages 50 to 64 claimed to be "very much" or "passionately" in love, compared with 49 percent of the French.

For both the French and the Americans, a belief in one great love- un grand amour- seems deeply, culturally embedded. Seventy-five percent of Americans ages 50 to 64 said they had encountered the love of their life, as did 81 percent of the French. But that's not to suggest you get only one chance at serious love. Thirty percent of the French, and 18 percent of Americans, said they'd encountered a great love "several times." Eileen D. (for privacy, some of those quoted are identified with a last-name initial ), a 63-year-old New York writer, fell in love with her college-sweetheart-turned-first-husband, then lost him to an early death. Since remarried, she says, "I'm glad to have learned that life renews itself."

The biggest difference between the French and the Americans revolves around-you guessed it-sex. In response to the statement "True love can exist without a radiant sex life," 77 percent of Americans ages 50 to 64 said yes. But 56 percent of the French in this age range answered, "Absolutely not!" Why the cultural disparity? "The French lifestyle is slower, more sensual," explains Mitch Tepper, Ph.D., founder of "The French allow space in their lives for sex and a playfulness between the sexes. We keep tighter reins on ourselves."

Also, Americans' underlying puritanism and economically stressed lifestyle may make us more tolerant of sexual droughts in long-term relationships, reasons Tepper. "What I've seen in my life is that the frequency and quality of sex ebbs and flows, but the emotion of love remains consistent," says Robert G., 58, a New Hampshire entrepreneur who has been married 35 years. "My sense of what I need has matured to be less emphatic." Meaning the benefit of a long-term relationship may be more about stability than sack time—an observation supported by Rutgers University biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, Ph.D. Fisher's brain scans of people in long-term relationships showed increased activity in an area associated with calm, but none in a region associated with anxiety."

You can still feel in love and not be racing to the bedroom," she says. "Those periods come and go, but the intensity of connection remains."

The experience is a bit different—and the sex a bit spicier—in new relationships. Jim Mason, a widowed 69-year-old author from Virginia, recently found his soul mate "after many hits and misses"—and says that sex is crucial to their relationship. "Both of us get antsy without passionate sex."

And the sexual pleasure enjoyed by new 50-plus couples can be higher than for young lovers, says Amanda Barusch, Ph.D., author of Love Stories of Later Life . "Perhaps because new love late in life feels like more of a miracle, it can be more romantically intense," she says. In fact, American respondents ages 50 to 64 felt more strongly about sex as part of being in love—and were more likely to be in love—than the 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed. (The younger French, however, were more sexually driven than their 50-to-64-year-old counterparts.)

Brain scans show that love spurs the body to produce dopamine, a natural stimulant, whether you're 18 or 80. "We found activity in participants who had just fallen in love, and also in participants who reported they were in love long-term," says Fisher of Rutgers. "This activity was the same whether the individual was 18 or 50-plus. The body gets older, but the basic emotion—the need to be in love—remains the same."

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