Originally printed in the Harvard Medical Newsletter, June 2011
Sexuality is not just for the young. Results from a University of Chicago survey published in 2007 suggested that over half of Americans remain sexually active well into their 70s. That said, sexual activity does subside with age. Biological factors tug in that direction, as do social arrangements: older people, especially women, often end up single when a spouse or partner dies. But researchers at Indiana University report that 20% to 30% of long-lived Americans are sexually active into their 80s.
Sexual Activity in Older Adults
It wasn’t long ago that older people weren’t included in studies of sexual behavior because they were seen as largely irrelevant to the topic: 59 was the upper age limit of a landmark study of American sexuality conducted in the early 1990s. However, the University of Chicago survey focused exclusively on older adults, including just over 3,000 Americans ages 57 to 85. The results lent some legitimacy to the subject of sexuality of older people. Here are some of the main points:
Sexual activity tapers off with age. Both surveys show a decline in sexual activity with age, although the drop-off isn’t as steep as one might expect, and a significant minority (especially men) defies the trend. In the Indiana study, 35% of the men ages 80 and older reported that they had intercourse a few times or more in the past year. In the University of Chicago study, 38.5% of the men ages 75 to 85 reported having sexual activity with a partner in the previous year.
Older women are less sexually active than older men. Both studies show that older women — even the “young old,” in their 60s — are less sexually active than men of the same age. The gender gap widens as people get older.
Partnered sex gets high marks. In the Indiana study, over three-quarters (78%) of the men ages 50 and over rated their most recent sexual experience with a partner as either extremely or “quite a bit” pleasurable. About two-thirds (68.2%) of the women in that age group rated their most recent experience with a partner that highly.
Yet, a sizable minority of the men (43%) and women (36%) in the Indiana study reported that their most recent partnered sexual activity was with someone other than a spouse or long-time partner. This category included casual or new acquaintances, friends, and “transactional” partners — people who engaged in sex in exchange for something, often but not always money.
Masturbation is common. Most men (63%) and almost half of women (47%) in the 50 and over age group reported masturbating in the past year, according to the Indiana survey. As with other sexual activities, the percentage declined with age.
Diabetes and Intimacy
Good health matters. The University of Chicago researchers found a strong association between good health and sexual activity, particularly among men. Diabetes seems to have a greater negative effect than either arthritis or high blood pressure on both genders, but especially on women. In the Indiana survey, a woman’s evaluation of her last sexual experience did not vary with her self-reported health status.
Sexual problems are common. Half of those who participated in the University of Chicago study reported having at least one bothersome sexual problem. Among men, the problems included difficulty achieving and maintaining an erection (37%), lack of interest in sex (28%), anxiety about performance (27%), and inability to climax (20%). Among women, the common problems were lack of interest in sex (43%), difficulty with lubrication (39%), inability to climax (34%), lack of pleasure from sex (23%), and pain during sex (17%). In the Indiana survey, 30% of the women ages 50 and over said they experienced some level of pain during their most recent sexual experience with a partner.
Many men take something to improve sexual function. In the Indiana survey, 17% of men ages 50 and older took an erectile dysfunction drug in connection with their most recent sexual experience with a partner. In the University of Chicago study, 14% of the men and 1% of the women reported taking medications or supplements to improve sexual function during the past year.