S-E-X: Why It May Help You Live Longer

By American Geriatrics Society (AGS), Health in Aging Foundation

Getting older and being sexually active aren’t mutually exclusive. Sexual satisfaction is still possible at any age. Although age-related changes may necessitate some adjustments, where there’s a will there’s a way. For both men and women, physiological changes to the body make having sex a different experience as you age, but different doesn’t mean worse; it just means adapting.

After you understand what to expect sexually of yourself and your partner as you both get older, you see that sexual pleasure and intimacy don’t have to fade over time.

Sexual activity is good for . . . everything

Sex certainly does have benefits. Regular and enthusiastic sex offers a host of measurable physiological advantages, probably more than anyone even knows. Sexual activity has positive effects on hormones, immune function, endorphins, and muscle strengthening; even if the effect is just a big smile on your face, sex does the body good.

Take a look at these examples of what sex can do for the body:

  • You live longer. Men who reported the highest frequency of orgasm lived longer than men who had less-frequent orgasms.
  • You have a reduced risk of heart disease. Research shows that men who had sex three or more times a week reduced their risk of heart attack or stroke by half.
  • You can get some exercise. A regular bout of sex burns around 50 calories — about the same as walking 15 minutes on a treadmill. The pulse rate in a person who’s aroused rises from about 70 beats per minute to 150. However, don’t substitute sex for other forms of exercise. You’d have to engage in sexual activity for many hours to achieve the same aerobic benefits as other options.
  • You experience a sense of well-being. Levels of the hormone oxytocin increase during intercourse and in turn releases endorphins. Endorphins give you a sense of well-being and can even reduce pain because of their action on pain receptors.
  • You get sick less. People who have sex weekly have higher levels of an antibody called immunoglobulin A, which can be important for the immune system when fighting infections.

Recognizing the effects of aging on sex

Normal aging isn’t responsible for diminished sexual desire. Older people can still feel the need for sex. As long as a partner is available, regular sexual activity is as normal as it is during any other time during your life. Just because people get older doesn’t mean that they don’t believe that sex still contributes to their physical and psychological health and well-being.

In most instances when people refrain from sex, it’s not because of lack of desire but rather a functional problem that may be wrongly assumed to be uncorrectable. Many men feel that it’s just inevitable that they’ll have to jump in line to get erectile medication, while women assume that after menopause they’ll need a firecracker under their derriere to get them interested in sex.

Studies show that the physical capacity for male erection and male and female orgasm continue almost indefinitely, even if achieving orgasm is desired but not always achieved. Research reveals that people over the age of 55 still engage in the same varied sexual practices they did when they were younger, such as masturbation and oral sex, in addition to intercourse. However, age does bring physical changes that need to be taken into account and adapted to if you want your sex life to remain lively as you get older.

Age-associated changes in men

Biological and physiological changes in men can impact their sexual function. These changes include the following:

  • A decline in levels of the hormone testosterone: Testosterone is the male sex hormone responsible for creating and releasing sperm, initiating sex drive, and providing muscular strength. Between the ages of 15 and 18, testosterone levels peak. By the time men reach their mid- to late-20s, testosterone levels start a slow decline. By the age of 40, some men notice a significant drop. At age 50, half of all men experience a significant reduction in testosterone levels, resulting in sexual side effects. For the majority of men with low testosterone levels, the major complaint is a diminished sex drive. Eighty percent of men who complain of a low libido also report the inability to maintain a strong erection.
  • The duration of the refractory period: The refractory period is the length of time between ejaculations. As men age, this period of time increases. The refractory period varies widely among individuals over a lifetime, ranging from minutes to hours to days. When a man is in his youth, he may be able to ejaculate multiple times within the period of a few hours. As he ages, he may not be able to sustain an erection, let alone ejaculate, for as many as 24 hours after his previous orgasm.

There are several reasons for this change. An increased infusion of the hormone oxytocin during ejaculation is believed to be chiefly responsible for the refractory period. The amount that oxytocin increases may determine the length of each refractory period. Another reason may be a decrease in the amount of blood flow to the penis from vascular disease, which is more common with age. Another chemical that could be responsible for the increase in the refractory period is prolactin. Prolactin suppresses dopamine, which is responsible for sexual arousal.

  • Erectile dysfunction: One of the greatest fears for men as they age is erectile dysfunction. Fortunately for many, changes in lifestyle choices can eradicate the problem. Nearly half of men between the ages of 45 and 65 may have difficulty getting an erection or maintaining an erection sufficient for intercourse. The most common cause of erectile dysfunction are hormone deficiencies, poor dietary habits, lack of exercise, weight problems, uncontrolled or untreated high blood pressure, vascular disease, and diabetes.

If you experience erectile dysfunction, talk with your doctor. It may indicate coronary heart disease or diabetes. Erectile dysfunction doesn’t cause heart disease, but it may be evidence that the process of arterial blockage is occurring in other areas of the body.

Age-associated changes in women

Besides puberty, menopause (the termination of menstrual periods) is the most dramatic change that affects women sexually as they age. Menopause usually occurs between 42 and 56 years of age with the average age being 50. During menopause hormonal production diminishes, and the lining of the vaginal wall becomes thinner and more rigid. The production of vaginal lubrication drops, which can make intercourse uncomfortable and is a big reason that women lose interest in sex. However, many over-the-counter products aid in lubrication. If extra lubrication isn’t effective, see your healthcare provider to consider prescription treatments.

A woman’s capacity to achieve orgasm can remain at near peak levels well into her senior years, even though it may take quite a bit longer to achieve. Menopause doesn’t negatively impact a woman’s desire or interest for sex. In fact, the freedom from worrying about unwanted pregnancy can be very liberating for post-menopausal women.

Solving sexual problems together

Both partners in a sexual relationship can experience sexual issues. The key to maintaining a positive relationship is to work together on challenges that arise. The following may help keep things hot as you get older:

  • Lubrication: To help with vaginal dryness, decreased erection, or atrophied vaginal tissues, use a little lube, such as K-Y jelly. A little goes a long way to solve these problems.
  • Patience: It’s probably going to take a little longer to get things going — for both of you. Take the time to enjoy what you’re doing — enjoy longer foreplay. Sex isn’t a race, anyway.
  • New underwear: Liven things up a bit. Ditch the granny panties and the tighty whiteys for something more visually stimulating and fun. You can always pretend that you’re buying those thongs for a friend. Or shop online — no one will ever know.
  • Sex toys: Don’t be embarrassed; they sell these toys online now, and they may help by stimulating areas you didn’t even know you had.

Above all sex is supposed to be fun — let it be.