It is late Spring now and when we were younger, the arrival of spring always seemed to herald a time of exuberance and heightened pleasures as all about us burst out in bloom and obvious evidence of reproduction. We too, being in our reproductive years, joined in the procreation of the species. To accomplish this wonder of life involved something rather unique to the human, pleasurable sexual intimacy. This used to be a subject that was “not discussed” and little was known about it, especially as people aged. However, all that has changed and there has been a fair amount of research about this subject that was so long taboo.
There are many definitions, but investigators most recently have defined “sex” as actions between two people with mutual consent involving vaginal intercourse, oral sex or genital stimulation by hand. Using this general definition a number of researchers have asked the question about how does age influence sexual intimacy. In preparing this summary, two papers were particularly useful, one from the U.S. involved 3005 men and women aged 57 to 85 (New England Journal of Medicine 23: 762, 2007) and another surveyed 2,250 Finns aged 45 to 74 (Journal of Sex Research 46:46, 2009).
What Happens as We Age?
The first thing to report is that it doesn’t appear that whether one is a Finn or American, age does have an impact on frequency of sexual intimacy. The amount of times one engages in sexually intimate acts decreases as one get older. Men tend to have a higher intimacy level than women, a fact that is usually explained by the facts that men tend to die earlier than women and older women tend to be left without a partner.
The frequency of intimacy drops as we age and there are a number of reasons for this. In the U.S. study the prevalence of sexual activity dropped from 73% during age 57 to 64, down to 53% in the 65 to 74 age group and 26% among the 75 to 85 year olds. One can assume that this level of activity might be considered “normal” since the sample was made among a representative U.S. population of older Americans.
What Determines Our Activity
Not surprisingly the most important factor regarding frequency is having a regular partner, usually a spouse. Health is another major factor. If one or the other partner declines in health this has a negative impact on frequency. There are medical factors that inhibit functionality, as seen in men and advertised on TV, problems with potency. Diabetes is particularly problematic in this regard as can be hypertension. Medicines are now taken to help with this problem. Chronic illness is a “turn off” for partners either because it makes sex more difficult and or uncomfortable or because it no longer has the priority seen in healthy partners. A major determinant of sexual activity is “desire.” One thing that does not impact frequency is an individual’s size, this may be contrary to the public image, but there may be something to idea of being “pleasingly plump.”
Obviously, the old adage “it take two to tango” comes into play here, and one of the interesting things determined in the research is that men and women are a little different in this important determinant of activity. Nevertheless, mutual desire is important in sustaining frequent sexual activity. Notable things that have been found about desire, and one is that you can be in a long marriage or relationship (40 years or more) and not lose desire (contrary to the conventional wisdom that the new and different elevates desire.) However, there are some “drivers” of desire and they are listed in the table for women and men.
It is important to note that sexual desire per se is not affected by age, meaning that one seems to maintain desire regardless of age if the major factors that determine desire are present in one’s life. In other words, if you are a woman who enjoys sex as part of the relationship with your partner who is healthy and your sex life is satisfying to you, then you will be likely to have frequent sexual intimacy. If you are a man the variables in your column apply to you. One common to the two is that the intimacy is an important part of the relationship to both.
What Does This All Mean
As we age many things slow down and decrease, not just our foot speed. Sexual intimacy is one of these things. If this becomes a problem for a couple, there are medical professionals who may be able to assist with what ever the problem is. In rare cases, sexual dysfunction can be the result of a serious life-threatening disease including mental depression, and this is one reason to make sure there is not an unknown health hazard that interferes with one’s interest in or sexual activity. For most people, there is no reason that being old should exclude people from an enjoyable sexual life, even if it becomes less frequent.
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