No Expiration Date for Sex!

Woet L. Gianotten, MD


May 18, 2023

For health professionals, the thought that our parents and grandparents don't have sex — or didn't — might be comforting.

Woet Gianotten, MD

The reality is that for a significant proportion of our older patients, sex has no use-by date. Humans are sexual beings throughout their lives, yet the culture has concealed that fact.

According to Rome, the purpose of sex is to make children. According to Hollywood, sex is only for the young, the healthy, and the beautiful. For the medical profession, sex consists mainly of risks or dysfunctions.

The results of these biases? Many middle-aged people fear their later sexual life. And medical professionals rarely ask about sexuality. That failing can be harmful. Sexuality and intimacy are essential elements for quality of life, with clear physical, emotional, and relational benefits.

Let's look at the data when researchers dared to ask seniors about their sexuality.

We start with the 2015 UK national research on sexuality. The study found a link between age and a decline in various aspects of sexual activity — but not a zeroing-out. For example, among men ages 70-79, 59% reported having had sex in the past year, with 19% having intercourse at least twice a month and 18% masturbating at least that often. Above age 80, those numbers dropped to 39%, 6%, and 5%, respectively. The reason behind the declines? A combination of taboo, fear of disease, use of medications or other interventions that disrupt sexual function or cause disfigurement, and a little bit of age itself.

What about women? Among women ages 70-79, 39% said they'd had sex in the past year, with 6% having intercourse at least twice per month and 5% masturbating two times or more monthly. Above age 80, those numbers were 10%, 4.5%, and 1%, respectively. Driving the fall-off in women were the same factors as for men, plus the sad reality that many heterosexual women become widowed because their older male partners die earlier.

The male-female difference also reflects lower levels of testosterone in women. And, because women say they value intimacy more than performance, we have two explanations for their lower frequency of masturbation. After all, a lot of intimacy occurs without either intercourse or masturbation.

Surprising and relevant is the amount of distress — or rather, their relative lack thereof —older patients report due to sexual problems. At age 18-44, 11% of US women indicated sexual distress; at age 45-64, the figure was 15%; and at age 65 and up, 9%.

For clinicians, those figures should prompt us to look more closely at alternative forms of sexual expression — those not involving intercourse or masturbation — in the aged, a field physicians typically do not consider.

Although dyspareunia or erectile problems affect many in long-standing relationships, neither is a reason to abstain from sexual pleasure. Indeed, in many couples, oral sex will replace vaginal intercourse, and if urinary, fecal, or flatal incontinence intrude, couples often waive oral sex in favor of more cuddling, kissing, digital stimulation, and other forms of sexual pleasure.

What about the expiry date for sex?

Fascinating research from Nils Beckman and colleagues found that the sex drive persists even as people (and men in particular) reach their 100th year. Beckman's group interviewed 269 Swedish seniors, all without dementia, at age 97. Sexual desire was affirmed by 27% of men and 5% of women in the survey. Among the men, 32% said they still had sexual thoughts, compared with 18% of women. Meanwhile, 26% of the men and 15% of the women said they missed sexual activity.

What should clinicians do with this information? First, we could start talking about sex with our older patients. According to the 97-year-old Swedes, most want us to! More than 8 in 10 of both women and men in the survey expressed positive views about questions on sexuality. And please don't be scared to address the subject in the single senior. They, too, can have a sexual or relationship issue and are happy when we raise the subject. They're not scared to talk about masturbation, either.

When caring for those with chronic diseases, cancer, in the course of physical rehabilitation, and even in the last phase of life, the clinical experience indicates that our patients are happy when we address sexuality and intimacy. Doing so can open the door to the admission of a problem and a corresponding solution, a lubricant or a PDE5 inhibitor.

But sometimes the solution is the conversation itself: Roughly 25% of patients are sufficiently helped simply by talking about sex. Addressing the importance of sexual pleasure is nearly always valuable.

Here are a few ice-breakers I find helpful:

  • Did taking this medication change aspects of sexuality? If so, does that bother you?

  • Knowing that continuing intimacy is healthy, do you mind if I address that subject?

  • We know that aspects of sexuality and intimacy are healthy. Without a partner, some people become sexually isolated. Would you like to talk about that?'

If addressing sexuality has benefits, what about sex itself?

We are gradually learning more about the many short-, intermediate-, and long-term health benefits of solo and joint sexual activity. Short-term benefits include muscle relaxation, pain relief (even, perhaps ironically, for headaches), and better sleep — all pretty valuable for older adults. Examples of intermediate-term benefits include stress relief and less depression. Research from the United States has found that hugging can reduce the concentrations of proinflammatory cytokines, and kissing positively influences cholesterol levels.

Finally, while the long-term benefits of sex might be less relevant for seniors, they do exist.

Among them are delayed onset of dementia and a substantial reduction in cardiovascular and cerebrovascular problems in men. More sex has been linked to longevity, with men benefitting a bit more than women from going through the entire process, including an orgasm, whereas women appear to gain from having a "satisfying" sex life, which does not always require an orgasm.

Let us not forget that these benefits apply to both patients and clinicians alike. Addressing intimacy and sexuality can ease eventual sexual concerns and potentially create a stronger clinician-patient relationship.

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