The benefits of a healthy sex life aren’t limited to young adults, according to a UK study that found intimacy and sexual activity are important for older adults’ well-being, too.
In the study of nearly 7,000 men and women, ages 50 to 89, quality of life was higher in those who reported any kind of sexual activity in the past year, such as kissing, researchers found.
Being emotionally close to one’s partner during sex also resulted in higher scores on the quality of life questionnaire for both men and women.
Preferences differed somewhat by gender, however. Among sexually active men, intercourse at least twice a month and frequent kissing, petting or fondling were associated with greater enjoyment of life. Among sexually active women, that was true for frequent kissing, petting or fondling - but not for intercourse.
“The underlying message from the research is that older men like all aspects of sex including penetrative sex whereas women appear to have a preference for non-penetrative sexual activity,” said Dr. Mark Griffiths from Nottingham Trent University, who was not involved in the study.
Lee Smith from Anglia Ruskin University in UK and Sarah Jackson from University College London and colleagues analyzed data from 3,045 men and 3,834 women who are participating in the long-term English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. People in the study take part in personal interviews with researchers and respond to questionnaires, including one about sexual relationships and activities, and another that assesses quality of life and enjoyment of life.
The average age of respondents was in the mid-60s, and most were married or living with a partner.
The researchers also found that overall satisfaction with one’s sex life was linked with greater enjoyment of life for men, but the link was not as clear for women.
Concerns about sex life resulted in lower quality of life scores, although this association too was more consistent in men, the researchers reported.
For men, worries about their levels of sexual desire, frequency of sexual activity, ability to have an erection and orgasmic experience detracted from enjoyment of life. For women, concerns about frequency of sex and about their ability to become aroused and to achieve orgasm had the same effect.
Frequent masturbation was not associated with enjoyment of life for either gender.
It is difficult to infer from the study alone whether sexual activity allowed participants to enjoy life more or if those who enjoy life are more likely to be sexually active. Also, participants may have not been completely honest in their responses, and different attitudes towards sex in different cultures may mean that the findings cannot be generalized to other countries, the study team notes.
Still, the findings suggest it may be helpful for physicians to routinely ask older patients about their sexual activity and to offer help for sexual difficulties, the researchers note in Sexual Medicine.
Health practitioners and caregivers “need to acknowledge that older adults are not asexual,” Smith and Jackson and their colleagues conclude.
“Information on and encouragement to try new sexual positions and explore different types of sexual activity is not regularly given to aging populations,” their report notes. “Engaging in discussions regarding sexuality in later life could help . . . (older people) live more fulfilling lives.”