Apr 042011

By Richard Wagner

It’s all over the news. Seniors and elders are still having sex!

I know it’s shocking. But we have the University of Chicago’s National Social Life, Health and Aging Project to blame. Ever since they presented the results of the first comprehensive national survey of sexual attitudes, behaviors and problems among older adults in the United States, the popular culture has been having a field day. I suppose the upside to all of this is that us older folk are finally breaking out of the “sexy senior citizen butt of a joke” syndrome.

This groundbreaking research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine back in August, 2007, studied only heterosexual couples, which is truly unfortunate. But it found that most of the respondents, ages 57 to 85, considered sexuality an important part of their life. The frequency of sexual activity, for those who remained sexually active, declined only slightly from when the respondents were in their 50s to when they were in their early 70s.

The researchers interviewed 3,005 people seniors and elders in their homes. They asked about their social and marital history, sexual activity and function, and physical and mental health. The researchers also gathered data on how these older adults perceive the world of social relationships. They learned that while social relationships contribute to the health and well-being of all people, it is especially significant in the lives of seniors and elders. Intimate social relationships can and do impact on the quality life of us older Americans. Who knew?

The researchers collected blood and saliva specimens as well as vaginal swabs. They assessed the participant’s sense of touch, taste and smell as well as vision and hearing. They hope these specimens and assessments will provide “biomarkers” for follow-up studies. For example, the data might provide evidence about hormone levels, prevalence of diseases, like heart disease or diabetes, and the frequency of human papillomavirus.

As the first wave of us baby boomers become sexagenarians, we make up the fastest growing segment of the US population. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of reliable information about how sexual activity and function changes as we age and how age related illness, combined with taboos around discussing sex in later life, contributes to a climate of worry or even shame for many older adults.

That’s why this University of Chicago study is so important. It shows that, for the most part, we remain sexually active — participating in vaginal intercourse, oral sex and masturbation — well into our 70s and 80s. Older adults remain interested and engage in sex, yet many respondents report bothersome sex related problems. But few senior men (38%) and even fewer senior women (22%) have discussed sex with a physician since they turned 50. And apparently the healing and helping professionals, the ones who regularly interface with us seniors and elders, aren’t any better prepared to have informed conversations with their patients and clients about their sexuality and health.

The survey documented a number of significant gender differences. For example, while 78 percent of men ages 75 to 85 have a spouse or another intimate relationship, only 40 percent of women in that age group do. This may be due to the fact that women tend to live longer then men, but then again, the study only considered heterosexual sexual expression. How many of senior and elder women and men are enjoying in same-sex expression? I’ll suppose we’ll probably never know.

The University of Chicago survey also found that sexual activity is closely tied to overall health. No surprise there. As the respondents’ health declined after age 70, so did the frequency of sexual activity, particularly for women. And those who remained sexually active reported an increase in sex related concerns, like diminished libido (43% of women), vaginal dryness (39% of women) or erectile dysfunction (37% of men).

The life-affirming news is that despite the toll age assesses on one’s body, many respondents remained sexually active despite health issues. For example, 50% of the couples under the age of 75, who remained sexually active, reported engaging in oral sex. More than half of men and a quarter of women, regardless if they had a sexual partner or not, said they masturbated.

In light of these findings, I suggest that we older adults consider our sex lives when considering any medical or therapeutic intervention. We ought consider how medical and pharmaceutical therapies will affect our sexual response. Because if we aren’t our own advocates, it’s clear to me that we can’t look to physicians, therapists or policymakers to have our best interests in mind.

This University of Chicago study underscores what most of us seniors and elders already know; those who interact with us remain ignorant to the problems age and disease processes have on our sex life. But if we’re not talking with them about these issues, then we are as much to blame.

This report provides a wakeup call; each of us must be more proactive in our medical and clinical decision-making, because the best medicine is practiced collaboratively—by you and your doctor. And breaking open this important conversation is the first step.