Stretching Out Your Sex Life

blancheNo, the blog has not been hijacked by spammers.

Radio silence was necessary yesterday as a I fielded media calls for a new study in the British Medical Journal on the eyebrow-raising subject of “sexually active life expectancy.” Stacy Tessler Lindau, associate professor of obstetrics/gynecology at the University of Chicago Medical Center, and Natalia Gavrilova, senior research associate, coined the term after mining two large aging surveys for information on health and sex in the golden years. That work, as you can see in coverage at CNN, the BBC, Time, the Los Angeles Times, and AOL, struck a chord with media outlets targeting baby boomers moving into their late 50’s and 60’s.

In what may not be surprising news for a culture inundated with erectile dysfunction ads, the sex life of many seniors remains robust, the study showed. But when broken down by gender, the story gets a little more complicated. When calculated from age 30, sexual life expectancy for men is nearly 35 years, while sexual life expectancy for women is closer to 31. Those numbers are fairly close, but there’s a key denominator difference – men, on average, die younger than women, leaving women with a greater percentage of their older years in a sexually inactive state.

If you push the axis for calculating sexually active life expectancy to age 55, the difference is more striking. Once a man reaches double nickels on the odometer, they can expect on average of 15 more years of sexual activity. For women, the figure is much lower, only 10.6 years. By age 75, only 16.8 percent of women were sexually active compared to 38.9% of men. That gap may be in part due to those little-blue-pill ads; Lindau and Gavrilova observed more sexually interested men in the 57-64 age group of a survey conducted in ’05-06 than in a survey performed 10 years earlier.

“Interest in sex, participation in sex and even the quality of sexual activity were higher for men than women, and this gender gap widened with age,” Lindau told my colleague John Easton. But the study “affirms a positive association between later-life health, sexual partnership and sexual activity.”

Indeed, in an endorsement of very-long-term relationships, the gender gap of sexual activity virtually disappeared in those who were married or living with a partner. And in an endorsement of eating right and getting your exercise, health was strongly associated with sexuality in both midlife and later life (whether good health leads to sexuality or vice versa cannot be parsed from the data).

While some of these conclusions seem like common sense, they’re novel in that Lindau and Gavrilova are filling a major gap in research on sexual behavior in older adults. An editorial accompanying their paper, written by Patricia Goodson from Texas A&M University, points out that a publication search for “sexuality” and “older adults” yields very few hits. That’s a serious blind spot for health care research and physicians, who should be aware of their older patients’ sex lives and the inherent medical concerns therein – as the commercials say, “ask your doctor if you’re healthy enough for sex.”

The difference between the 90’s survey and the 00’s survey in terms of male sexual interest in their later years also suggests that sexual life expectancy can change over time in society. If drugs like Viagra and Cialis are responsible for the, er, bump in male sexual activity, as the authors speculate but cannot prove, that suggests that the gender gap in older age could be narrowed by the development of treatments for sexual dysfunction in older women. And if good health is a benefit of sexual activity and not just a promoter, treatments that promote sexual activity in older women could be medically beneficial in ways not yet fully understood.

So try not to wince next time your grandparents get snuggly or a particularly ribald rerun of The Golden Girls appears on your television. A healthy sex life past the retirement age is not only common, it’s a signifier of good health.

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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