En español | There’s a popular misperception that as you get older, you're no longer interested in sex. The truth is, rather than feel sexually stalled, there is a large body of research showing that a lot of action is going on between the sheets among those in their 50s and older. And although normal aging does, of course, bring about physical changes that may impact one’s sex life, there are plenty of health reasons — both physical and emotional — for continuing to get jiggy with it.
And that’s why AARP has created a series of stories and quizzes around the topic that's titled “Let’s Talk About Sex … After 50.”
A recent University of Michigan/AARP poll found that 40 percent of those between 65 and 80 report being sexually active, with more than half of those who have a partner saying that they still engage in intimate encounters. When it comes to those in their 50s, a separate study found that up to 91 percent of men and 86 percent of women are sexually active. And one in three 50-somethings is having sex at least once a week.
A few other interesting nuggets from that AARP-sponsored National Poll on Healthy Aging:
- 72 percent of people between 65 and 80 have a romantic partner and of those 54 percent are sexually active.
- Close to two-thirds of those 65 to 80 say they’re still interested in sex whether or not they are sexually active.
- Women were less likely than men to be sexually active — 31 percent overall, compared with 51 percent of men — but were more likely to be extremely or very satisfied with their sex lives.
Women and Sex After 50
Iris Krasnow, author of “Sex After …Women Share How Intimacy Changes as Life Changes” and “The Secret Lives of Wives,” told AARP that "sex after 50 can be the best sex of your life because, for one reason, an empty nest means more spontaneity for intimacy."
“I hear from a lot of wives with empty nests who have found the kitchen to be a real hot spot,” she said.
Krasnow emphasized that the more sex you have, the more sex you will want to have.
“The best way to stoke the fires and keep a marriage hot or at least really warm after 50 is to remember to put ‘have sex’ on your to-do list,” she said. “Busy couples with two professions and long marriages can take each other for granted and/or be too exhausted at the end of the day to even speak to each other, let alone undress each other.
“If you’re not talking, you’re probably not touching,” she added. “And if you’re not touching, you’re in trouble. Sustained intimacy, emotional and to some degree physical — even if it’s hugging and kissing — are essential for making a marriage last as we age.”
Krasnow and other experts argue that people should not assume that the decline in hormones that happens as women age automatically leads to a decline in libido. Indeed, a study out of King’s College London found that menopause doesn’t play as great a role in sexual problems as once thought. A bigger factor in determining the enjoyment of your sex life is whether you had issues with desire and orgasm before menopause. In short, women can still pursue a fulfilling sex life — even after menopause.
One caveat: it’s true that a drop in estrogen can lead to vaginal dryness, as well as to vaginal walls that are thinner, which can sometimes make sex painful. As women age, they will have less vaginal lubrication, and it may take longer for the vagina to naturally lubricate itself. But JoAnn Pinkerton, an obstetrician-gynecologist and the executive director of the North American Menopause Society, said the use of prescription low-dose estrogen applied directly to vaginal tissues can help counteract the thinning and dryness of vaginal tissues. Also helpful: over-the-counter, water-based lubricants and sex toys that may help increase the natural flow of things. And the more you have sex, the healthier your vaginal tissues will be.
Men and Sex After 50
Robert Ortiz, M.D., an internal medicine specialist, told AARP that, for men, erectile dysfunction, or ED, can be a common problem that begins on average around the mid-40s. He said that as part of the normal aging process, this is the time where men begin to experience a significant natural decrease in the overall production and physiologic levels of sex hormones known as androgens, particularly in the levels of testosterone. This specific hormone, along with others, plays a major role in the maintenance of normal sexual function throughout a man’s younger years.
“In addition to this completely normal organic component of aging, there are several other factors including physical conditioning, emotional and psychological factors, just to name a few, which significantly influence the degree of ED, making it a very complex condition,” he said. “Fortunately, over the last several years, we have seen some amazing developments in the medical treatment of ED.”
Viagra and Cialis are just two drugs that can be helpful. The National Poll on Healthy Aging found that 18 percent of men and 3 percent of women 65 to 80 say they’ve taken medications or supplements to improve sexual function in the past two years. But only 17 percent said they have talked with their doctor or other health care provider about sexual health.
If you need a few pragmatic reasons for getting some nooky, research shows that not only does a regular sex life help boost your mood, weekly sex may also prolong your life. A small study first published in the medical journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that women who enjoyed sex at least once a week had significantly longer telomeres. The longer the telomeres, which are DNA strand protectors, the less likely you are to develop a degenerative disease or die young. Sex also boosts your immune system, helps lower blood pressure, and burns calories — about 150 an hour. For men, it may lessen the risk of heart attack.
Despite all the benefits, Krasnow pointed out that there are many couples over 50 that don’t have tons of sex — and that can be okay. Research has shown that about 15 percent of married couples are sexless, meaning the spouses haven’t had sex with each other in the past six months to one year.
“That’s okay as long as there is some degree of intimacy. That’s the most important thing,” she said. “Sex is a physical pleasure that is fleeting. Intimacy is soul deep and is the ingredient that makes relationships go the distance."
A full report on the findings and methodology is available at www.healthyagingpoll.org, along with past National Poll on Healthy Aging reports.