You may remember the days when the word “pregnant” had to be whispered in mixed company, and the extent of public discussion on sex was nil. Times have certainly changed and it has been recognized for many decades now that sexual intimacy is a healthy and normal part of consensual adult relationships. More progressive views on sexuality were accepted with one caveat: they typically excluded adults older than 65 for whom the label of “asexual” was assigned. This stereotype has slowly changed over time with a boost from the World Health Organization in 2010 when it released a statement detailing the importance of sexual health across the lifespan, thereby legitimizing the sexual activity of older adults.
The frequency of sexual activity in older adulthood is similar across adult age groups until around the mid-70s. Research suggests that after this age, the aging process can interfere with the physical ability to engage in intercourse, but intimate behaviors continue and include more hugging, touching and kissing (Herbenick et al, 2010).
There is a growing body of evidence showing that all expressions of sexual intimacy are beneficial to physical and mental health in older adults (Thompson et al, 2011). In recent years, neuroscience research has suggested that maintaining healthy sexual expression in later life may have a previously unrecognized benefit: better cognitive function!
There are three proposed mechanisms of action for how this happens:
1) increased cardiovascular health, as sexual activity is considered mild to moderate physical activity (Levine, Steinke, Bakaeen, et al, 2012); 2) increased release of neurotransmitters and hormones, specifically dopamine and oxytocin (Furth, Mastwal, Wang, Buonanno, & Vullhorst, 2013; Guastella, et al 2010), which decreases stress hormones, improves mood and promotes quality sleep and 3) social engagement, as it provides a complex and stimulating (pun intended) shared experience.
Let’s review two recent research studies on the possible connection between sexual activity and cognition in older adults, so you can draw your own conclusions.
Title: Sex on the Brain! Associations Between Sexual Activity and Cognitive Function in Older Age
Journal: Age and Ageing, 2016
Authors: Wright, H. & Jenks, R.A.
Participants: 6,833 adults, aged 50–89
Method: Investigated correlations between sexual activity in the previous 12 months (defined as whether or not the research participants had engaged in any form of sexual activity, including intercourse, masturbation, petting or fondling) and the scores from cognitive tests with a focus on immediate and delayed verbal memory and a number sequencing task.
Results: After controlling for age, education, wealth, physical activity, depression, cohabiting, self-rated health, loneliness and quality of life, there were signiﬁcant associations between sexual activity and number sequencing and memory recall in men and sexual activity and memory recall in women.
Conclusions: Sexual activity is associated with higher scores on tests of memory and executive function, in adults aged 50–89.
Title: Frequent Sexual Activity Predicts Specific Cognitive Abilities in Older Adults
Journal: The Journals of Gerontology, 2017
Authors: Wright, H. Jenks, R.A. & Demeyere, N.
Participants: 73 adults aged 50–83 years
Method: Investigated correlations between frequency of sexual activity in previous 12 months (defined as “never,”“monthly” or “weekly” engagement in any form of sexual activity, including intercourse, masturbation, petting or fondling) and the scores from a test of cognitive functioning.
Results: Weekly sexual activity was a significant predictor of overall cognitive function, verbal fluency and visuospatial test performances.
Conclusion: Weekly sexual activity was associated with better overall cognition and scores on subtests of verbal fluency and visuospatial ability.
Are there barriers to remaining intimate with age?
Approximately half of older adult men and women who are sexually active indicate they experience at least one sexual problem (Lindau et al., 2007). Reasons include:
- Declining sex hormones
- Lack of access to a partner
- Medical conditions that affect performance or interest
- Medication side effects
- Negative body image
- Internalized stereotypes about aging and sexuality
- Lack of privacy
- Caregiver role
“There is no expiration date on expressing your love,” says Maggie Syme PhD, MPH, of the Center on Aging at Kansas State University. “Sexuality and intimacy are important to many people across the lifespan.
“It continues to give us physical and emotional benefits into the oldest ages and remains integral to quality of life for many older adults. Clinical psychologists can improve sexual health for older adults by routinely screening for sexual health concerns and providing assessment and intervention as needed, in close collaboration with both the person and their medical team.”
- Furth, K. E., Mastwal, S., Wang, K. H., Buonanno, A., & Vullhorst, D. (2013). Dopamine, cognitive function, and gamma oscillations: role of D4 receptors. Front Cell Neuroscience; 7: 119.
- Guastella A. J., Einfeld, S. L., Gray, K. M. et al. (2010). Intranasal oxytocin improves emotion recognition for youth with autism spectrum disorders. Biological Psychiatry; 67: 692.
- Herbenick, D., Reece, M., Schick, V., Sanders, S. A., Dodge, B., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2010). Sexual behavior in the United States: Results from a national probability sample of men and women ages 14–94. Journal of Sex Medicine;7(suppl 5):255–265.
- Levine, G.N., Steinke, E. E., Bakaeen, F. G. et al. (2012). Sexual activity and cardiovascular disease: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 125:1058–72.
- Lindau, S. T., Schumm, P. Laumann, E. O., Levinson, W., O’Muircheartaigh, C. A., & Waite, L. J. (2007). A study of sexuality and health among older adults in the United Stated. New England Journal of Medicine, 357, 762-774.
- Thompson, W., Charoa, L., Vahia, I., Depp, C, Allison, M, & Jeste, D. (2011). Association between higher levels of sexual function, activity, and satisfaction and self-rated successful aging in older postmenopausal women. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 59, 1503–1508.
- Wright H., Jenks R.A. & Demeyere, N. (2017). Frequent Sexual Activity Predicts Specific Cognitive Abilities in Older Adults. The Journals of Gerontology. Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. gbx065, https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbx065