Thursday January 29 2015
Sex doesn’t stop with retirement
“A third of pensioners have sex at least twice a month,” the Daily Mail reports. A new UK study reinforces the point that sex doesn’t automatically stop once a person gets their free bus pass.
The study looked at sexual activity and sexual health among more than 6,000 men and women aged 50 to 90. It showed that a sizeable minority of older people – including those over the age of 80 – continue to have active sex lives, although sex became less frequent as people got older.
Men were particularly concerned about their sexual health as they got older, while women became less so. Men were worried about erection problems and women about lack of desire.
This is an interesting study of sexuality among older people. It relies on self-reporting, which might undermine its reliability, as some people may find it hard to be honest about such a sensitive topic.
A final important point is that sexually transmitted infection (STIs) don’t stop being a problem once you have retired. Recent data has shown that rates of common STIs in the 65 and over category have risen in England during the past decade. You should always practise safe sex whatever your age.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Manchester, University of Leeds and NatCen Social Research. It was funded by the National Institute on Aging and a consortium of UK government departments.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.
The Daily Mail’s report that one third of pensioners have sex at least twice a month was accurate, but the results of this study were more complex than the Mail’s report implied as it was not all good news.
Many participants expressed concerns about sex, not just the frequency of their sexual activity. Also, the study did not cover only “pensioners” but people aged 50 and over.
What kind of research was this?
This was an observational study of sexual activity, problems with sexual functioning and concerns about sexual health among 6,201 older adults in England. The authors point out that stereotypes of older people often ignore the significance of sexual activity. Specifically how sexual activity, or lack of it, can affect fulfilment in relation to quality of life and emotional wellbeing. Also little is known about how sexuality relates to the ageing process generally.
What did the research involve?
The researchers used data from a nationally representative survey of men and women in England aged 50 years and older, who were taking part in an ongoing longitudinal study of ageing (the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing). All participants were living in the community, in private households, so the study did not cover older people in residential care.
In 2012/13, 7,079 participants had a face-to-face interview and completed a comprehensive questionnaire on their sexual relationships and activities. Partners under 50 were excluded and 6,201 participants, 56% of them women, were included in the final sample.
The questionnaire included detailed questions on attitudes to sex, frequency of sexual activities, problems with sexual activities and function, concerns and worries about sex, and details about current sexual partnerships.
Participants were also asked about their current living arrangements and general health and lifestyle factors during the face-to-face interview. They were asked if they had ever been diagnosed with any of several common conditions, including high blood pressure, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and asthma.
They were also asked to rate their:
- health on a five point scale (ranging from excellent to poor),
- smoking status (current or non-smoker)
- frequency of alcohol consumption over the past year (ranging from never or rarely, to frequently – three days a week to almost every day)
Depressive symptoms were also assessed using a validated depression scale.
The researchers analysed their results, looking specifically at any association between sexual activity, reported chronic conditions and self-rated general health. They adjusted results for age, partner status, smoking status and frequency of alcohol consumption.
What were the basic results?
Below are the main findings of the study:
- At all ages, men reported more frequent sexual activity and thinking about sex more often than women. Likewise, sexually active men reported higher levels of concern with their sexual health and sexual dissatisfaction than women at all ages.
- Levels of sexual activity declined with increasing age, although a sizable minority of men and women remain sexually active until the eighth and ninth decades of life.
- Poorer health was associated with lower levels of sexual activity and a higher prevalence of problems with sexual functioning, particularly among men.
- The difficulties most frequently reported by sexually active women related to becoming sexually aroused (32%) and achieving orgasm (27%), while for men the main difficulty was erectile function (39%).
- The sexual health concerns most commonly reported by women related to their level of sexual desire (11%) and frequency of sexual activities (8%). Among men common concerns were level of sexual desire (15%) and erectile difficulties (14%).
- While the likelihood of reporting sexual health concerns tended to decrease with age in women, the opposite was seen in men.
- Poor sexual functioning and disagreements with a partner about initiating and/or feeling obligated to have sex were associated with greater concerns about and dissatisfaction with overall sex life.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers say that their study shows many older people, including those over 80, continue to have active sex lives, although the frequency of sexual activities declines with increasing age.
Women appeared less dissatisfied with their overall sex life than men and reported decreasing levels of dissatisfaction with increasing age.
They say that older people’s sexual health should be “managed” not just in the context of their age, gender and general health, but also within their existing sexual relationship.
This study suggests not only that many older people are still sexually active, but that, like every other age group, they have worries and concerns about sex and relationships. Not surprisingly, ageing and failing health affect sexual activity.
Older men report worrying about getting erections, while women are more concerned with lack of desire. The study also reminds us that sexual problems have to be seen in the context of a relationship.
The study is, by definition, based on people self reporting on sex, which might undermine its reliability. It is possible that some people find it hard to be honest about such a sensitive area, even in a confidential questionnaire.
If you are an older adult and you are having problems with your sex life then there may be treatment options available. Read more about how you could have a fulfilling sex life as you get older.
Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter. Join the Healthy Evidence forum.