“Pensioners enjoying sex life in their 70s”, the headline of The Daily Telegraph reads. Several news sources report on Swedish research findings that pensioners are enjoying a good sex life well into their 70s – particularly women. They say that there has been an increase over the past 30 years in the number of 70 year olds who report that they still have an active sex life.
Although there are some limitations to these findings, principally that they may not be representative of the entire population of 70 year olds (a significant proportion did not agree to participate in questioning), or of other nationalities and ethnicities, it is encouraging to find that many more people today may still be able to continue with a full and healthy lifestyle into old age.
Where did the story come from?
PhD student Nils Beckman and colleagues of the Neuropsychiatric Epidemiology Unit, Sahlgrenska Academy at Gothenburg University, Sweden, carried out this research. It was published in the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal .
What kind of scientific study was this?
This was a cross-sectional study designed to study the trends in self-reported sexual behaviour amongst 70 year olds. Samples of 70 year olds were examined using identical methods at four separate time periods: 1971–2, 1976–7, 1992–3, and 2000–1. The study was set up to investigate health and health-related factors in a representative sample of 70 year olds from Gothenburg, both those living at home and in care homes. Samples were obtained using the Swedish population register, and included people living at home and in institutions.
Sampling methods were based on birth dates, and all people who agreed to participate were numbered consecutively 1 to 5. In 1970–71, 460 of the sample (those assigned numbers 1 and 2) were asked to participate in a psychiatric assessment, which included questions on sexual behaviour, of whom 85.2% agreed (392 people). A similar process was used during the following three time periods: in 1976–7, 404 men and women (79.8% of those invited) agreed to psychiatric assessment, in 1992–3, 249 women (65.2% of a sample of only women invited) agreed, and in 2000–1, 500 men and women (65.2% of those invited) agreed. This gave a total of 1,506 adults (946 [63%] women and 560 men).
In the later time periods, those who did not agree to participate included a higher proportion of those who were not, or who had never been, married. Participants were questioned about their attitudes to sexuality in later life, frequency of sexual intercourse during the past year, satisfaction with intercourse and any sexual dysfunction or reasons for stopping intercourse. They were also asked about their age at first intercourse, and its timing in relation to marriage. The researchers obtained full information on the person’s marital status, past and current. As part of the health study, participants also received medical and dental examinations and any necessary laboratory or clinical investigations. Only people diagnosed to have dementia were excluded from the study. Analyses were separated for sex and marital status.
What were the results of the study?
Across the 30-year time period, there was an increase in the proportion of people divorced, in a relationship but living apart, or cohabiting; there was a decrease in the proportion widowed or never married. For those who had a partner, the proportion reporting a happy relationship increased from the beginning to the end of the time periods (men, from 40% to 57%; women, 35% to 52%). Women were more likely than men to be widowed and less likely to be married or cohabiting across all time periods.
When they looked at sexual behaviour, there was a significant increase from 1971 to 2000 in the proportion reporting an active sexual life (intercourse during the past year) across all groups: an increase from 38% to 56% among married women; 52% to 68% among married men; 0.8% to 12% among unmarried women; and 30% to 54% among unmarried men. Higher proportions of women and men in the later time periods reported higher satisfaction with sex and a more positive attitude to sex in later life. The proportion reporting age at first intercourse to be less than 20 had increased from 19% of women and 52% of men in 1970 to 64% of women and 77% of men in 2000.
What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?
The researchers conclude that self-reported frequency and quality of sexual life amongst Swedish 70-year olds has improved over a 30-year period.
What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?
Although this study has been carefully conducted over a long period of time, the nature of the topic produced several unavoidable issues that limit the interpretation of these findings:
- Not all of those invited to participate in the assessment of sexual behaviour agreed, with uptake ranging from 65.2% to 85.2%. It may be that those who agreed to participate led more active sex lives and felt more comfortable in answering questions, while those who declined may contain a higher proportion of those who may have been leading less fulfilling sex lives. For example, in the later time periods, those not agreeing to participate in questioning contained a significantly higher proportion of those who were not or who had never been married. Additionally, people not wishing to answer questions on sexual behaviour may have included a higher proportion of those who were experiencing problems such as impotence, and therefore did not feel comfortable discussing this. Therefore, the results may not be representative of the entire population of 70 year olds.
- The possibility of limited generalisability across nationalities, cultures and ethnicities must be noted. Sexual behaviour is very personal to the individual and also varies widely across populations. This sample from Sweden may not be representative of elsewhere.
- As all responses were self-reported, there may be some inaccuracies due to recall bias, such as frequency and age at first intercourse. Also, what one person considers to be sexual activity, sexual satisfaction or a positive factor in their life, is highly individual and cannot be considered to be a standardised response.
- There may have been some potential for differences in examinations and questioning across the wide time period of the study. However, the researchers do report that they tested reliability between the different examiners across the study period and found it to be high.
- Only heterosexual sexual activity was assessed by the study.
Although there is some limit to these findings, it is encouraging to find that many more people today may still be able to continue with a full and healthy lifestyle into old age.