While many people link sex and sexual expression with younger generations, it’s not something older people need to miss out on because of poor health.
Health can put restrictions on the amount of sex older people have in their later years and researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), the University of Glasgow and UCL recently set out to investigate the role health, along with lifestyle and relationships played in sexual activity and satisfaction as people grow older.
Published in the PLOS ONE Journal, researchers explained that sexual expression is important in maintaining relationships, promoting self-esteem and contributing to health and wellbeing and investigated how people aged between 55 and 74 responded and dealt with various health, lifestyle and relationship factors. Researchers combined survey data from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3), as well as in-depth interviews with 3,500 older people.
Natsal-3 is the largest scientific study of sexual health and lifestyles in Britain, with studies carried out every 10 years since 1990 and involving more than 45,000 people to date.
The results found that one in four men and one in six women have a health problem that impacts their sex life. Older women were less likely than men to be sexually active, but were just as likely as men to be satisfied with their sex life.
Researchers noted older people found it difficult to separate the effects of declining health from those of increasing age and that ill health influenced whether participants had a partner to have a sexual relationship with. Participants in a relationship noted sexual satisfaction was strongly associated with the quality of communication with their partner, as well as contentment with their relationship.
Furthermore, health issues didn’t always negatively impact sex life, with some people experimenting with new ways of being sexually active to improve their sex lives.
“Looking at the impact of health on sexual activity and satisfaction as we age is important, however few studies have examined the relationship between the two,” leader author Bob Erens said in a statement. “Health can affect an individual’s sex life in various ways, from having or finding a partner, to physical and psychological limitations on sexual expression.”
Researchers found those experiencing problems or a lack of sexual satisfaction rarely sought professional help to fix the problem, but that some older people weren’t affected by not being sexually active.
“Although this could be an individual choice or because of a perceived lack of support, it is vital that individuals feel able to make enquiries with health care professionals,” Erens said. “In particular, discussing problems can often lead to identification of underlying medical conditions.”
One way researchers said health professionals can assist is by making sensitive enquiries for patients who may want access to help, which in turn can improve their wellbeing and quality of life.
“We’re seeing numerous, interconnected factors influencing sexual activity in older people. Not being in good health can influence mood, mobility and whether a person has a partner, which in turn impact on sexual activity,” study co-author Kirstin Mitchell said. “Medication taken for health conditions often compounds the problem.
“The study findings suggest that pharmacological approaches, like Viagra, do not always help to resolve sexual difficulties, which need to be seen in the wider context of older people’s lives.”
It’s always important to talk with a health professional if you or a partner are experiencing health issues that could be impacting your sex life.
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