Sexuality in Older Adults
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What are the benefits of a healthy sex life for older adults?
Sex is an important part of emotional and physical health. In a relationship, sexual activity allows you to establish intimacy and express your feelings for your partner. It also benefits your physical health by reducing stress and making you feel good about yourself.
As you age, your sexual health will change. But growing older doesn’t have to mean the end of your sexual activity. You can have a healthy, enjoyable sex life at any age.
How does aging affect sexual health?
Changes for women: As a woman approaches menopause, her estrogen levels begin to decrease. This may lead to vaginal dryness and thinning, which can make intercourse uncomfortable. In addition, she may have less sex drive. It may take longer to become sexually aroused. Her body may change in size or shape, which may affect her self-esteem.
Changes for men: As a man gets older, his testosterone levels begin to decrease. It may take longer for him to become sexually aroused. It may take longer for the penis to become erect. Erections may not be as firm or last as long. It may also take longer for an older man to ejaculate. Erectile dysfunction is more common the older a man gets. However, this condition isn’t an inevitable part of getting older.
Medical conditions: Your overall health affects your sexual health. As you grow older, your risk for health problems increases. Conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and depression can make sex more challenging. Health problems can also decrease sex drive, or affect your ability to become aroused or have an orgasm. If your partner is sick (for example, if they have cancer or have had a heart attack) or has had surgery, you may be afraid to initiate sexual activity because you are worried that sex might harm your partner.
Medicines: Many older adults take one or more prescription medicines. All medicines have side effects, and some may affect your sexual activity. For example, certain medicines may decrease your sex drive, or affect your ability to become aroused or have an orgasm.
What can I do to maintain sexual health as I age?
As your body and your sexual performance change, you may worry about how your partner will react. You may feel embarrassed or nervous. You might even avoid sexual activity. But don’t give up. There are many things you can do to make up for the changes that aging brings to your sex life. Read through the tips below and work with your partner to maintain a satisfying sex life.
- Contact your healthcare provider. Although many adults have sexual problems as they age, few of them talk to their healthcare providers about their symptoms. Your healthcare provider can help you improve your sexual health by treating erectile dysfunction or any other medical condition. They can also find medicines that don’t affect your sexual activity. They can suggest ways for you and your partner to enjoy sex together safely.
- Talk to your partner. It may be uncomfortable at first to talk openly with your partner about sex, but it’s important to communicate with each other. Tell your partner about your feelings and concerns. Talk about what you want from your shared sexual experiences.
- If you and your partner are having sexual problems, try adapting your routine. Allow more time for arousal. Try new positions. Be creative. You may find that you don’t have intercourse as often as you used to, but together you can find new ways to be intimate. Spend time touching, kissing, and enjoying each other’s company.
- Practice safe sex. Older adults are still at risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Ask your partner about their sexual history, and share yours. Consider getting tested for STIs together before you become intimate. To prevent STIs, always use a condom when having sex.
- Stay healthy. To stay in shape and help prevent disease, be sure to exercise, eat right, and see your healthcare provider for regular preventive care.
A note for caregivers
If you care for an older adult, try to be sensitive about their sex life. You may feel uncomfortable addressing a new romance or talking about sexual health with the person you care for, but these are important parts of an older adult’s emotional and physical well‑being. Try to answer questions, address concerns, and acknowledge new relationships with respect.
Sexuality in Later Life by National Institute on Aging (04/12/12, http://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/sexuality-laterlife)
Older adults still crave sex, intimacy by American Psychological Institute (04/12/12, http://www.apa.org/monitor/2010/10/intimacy.aspx)
Safe Sex for Seniors (PDF) by American Geriatrics Society Foundation for Health in Aging (04/12/12, http://www.healthinaging.org/public_education/safe_sex_tips.pdf)
A study of sexuality and health among older adults in the United States. by Lindau ST, Schumm LP, Laumann EO, et al. (N Engl J Med 08/23/07, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa067423#t=articleBackground)