Heidi Godman

For women, sexuality changes with age but doesn’t disappear

Let’s face it, ladies: Sex is a topic you usually discuss behind closed doors with your partner or during lunch with your closest friends (glass of wine optional). But I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older that sex isn’t the hot lunch topic it used to be. That’s no surprise, considering how the activity that once consumed us now has to fit into the patchwork of our lives that also includes work, kids, aging parents, and, oh yes, glorious sleep. But it does make me wonder about the future. Is there a time when sex will no longer be on the agenda? And can we—should we—change that?

The answer, it turns out, is that it’s likely up to each of us. A research letter out this week in JAMA Internal Medicine reports that women between the ages of 40 and 65 who place greater importance on sex are more likely to stay sexually active as they age. In other words, if it’s important to you, you’ll keep on doing it. “Having taken a lot of sexual histories from midlife women, it’s probably true!” says Dr. Jan Leslie Shifren, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School, and co-author of the Harvard special report Sexuality in Midlife and Beyond.

Dr. Shifren points out that the research letter did not find that sex was more satisfying for women who stated it was important to them, just that they were more likely to remain sexually active. It’s also not clear how often they had sex.

There are many reasons why sex may slow down for women when they get older, not least of which is menopause. When the ovaries stop making estrogen, the vaginal lining becomes thinner, there’s less vaginal elasticity, muscle tone, and lubrication, and arousal takes longer. As a result, women may experience

  • decreased libido (a lack of interest in sex)
  • difficulty with lubrication
  • pain with penetration
  • difficulty or inability to climax.

Some women may have sexual dysfunction that’s related to social or psychological issues, such as stress, anxiety, body image problems, relationship problems, or the lack of a partner.

Poor health can also get in the way of having sex. Heart disease can reduce the amount of blood that reaches sex organs, making it difficult to fill the blood vessels around the vagina that are crucial for adequate lubrication and arousal. High blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and incontinence can all nudge sex aside. Medications for a variety of conditions can have anti-sex side effects. For example, some drugs used to treat depression or high blood pressure can blunt interest in sex or cause difficulty reaching orgasm.

So what’s a woman to do? Seek treatment. That may not be as complicated as you think. Many sexual problems can be reversed with appropriate therapy, especially if they’re relatively new. Dr. Shifren says treatment is often successful.

Some therapies are simple, such as using a lubricant or low-dose vaginal estrogen for dryness and pain, or swapping one medication with negative side effects for another. Sometimes the treatment may be more involved, such as hormone therapy for decreased libido or sex therapy for inability to climax.

But clinical therapy is just part of the prescription. These lifestyle changes can also make a difference:

Exercise—it can improve your sexual function by improving blood flow and strengthening your heart.

Quit smoking—it will improve blood flow to the sexual organs and may also stave off menopause for a few years.

Drink alcohol in moderation, since large amounts of alcohol can dampen sexual reflexes, trigger hot flashes, and disrupt sleep.

Control your weight to give you the body image you want.

Eat a healthy diet, which helps prevent heart disease and diabetes, and helps you maintain a healthy weight.

Dr. Shifren also offers this advice: “Bring some novelty to your life. Take vacations. Go on date nights.”

Why bother with all this? Sex is important to women’s health. It revs up metabolism and may boost the immune system. Frequent sexual intercourse is associated with reduced heart attack risk. It can help the vagina stay lubricated, elastic, and healthy. And it’s fun.

If it’s important to you, you should be able to enjoy sex well into your older years. And that’s something worth talking about.

Related Information: Sexuality in Midlife and Beyond

Comments:

  1. Keith

    While age may have its affect on sex with women, it’s not the only thing that slows down the topic of sex. The real truth is that a lot of women in their quest to compete for the position of men, don’t want to be on the bottom anymore, they seek out each other, they’ve substituted sex for other things which may not be worth mentioning at lunch. (Food being one)
    And these are the types of things that need to spoke on openly.

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  3. Notinterestedanymore

    I’m 55 and in excellent health. I am married to a wonderful, desirable man. The problem is that I have no sex drive anymore and sex just doesn’t feel good. I only have sex because it’s important to my husband and so I fake it. When we got married, I had a very healthy libido, and we have a great relationship; I’m just not horny anymore. I’ve tried all kinds of lubricant and have also tried perscription vaginal hormone cream. It helps with the chafing, but does nothing with restoring desire.

    I find a lot of other women my age feel the same way and we are expected to “fix” this. Well, maybe it’s just natural given the physical changes in our bodies. Maybe it’s just normal for some of us to lose our drive. I have sex 2-3 times per week, but I only enjoy it from the perspective that I’m pleasing my husband. I’d love it if he lost his drive, but that’s not likely.

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    • Grandma

      My husband and I are 80 and 77, and have had an active sex life.I have had a total hysterectomy, and he complete prostate surgery. Since we were sexually active in former years, we still find climax is fulfilling, but not like it used to be. Since my new health care drug plan will not refill my estropipate,(age), I need to find a consultant who knows my needs, as the dryness is certainly a factor. We have also gone into the “play toys”, that seem to help. We find that just being together and caring about each others needs after 56 years of marriage, is so important. Sex makes you sweet–it makes the bumps of marriage and kids, tolerable. Thank your for your articles.

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  9. Mihai

    Plenty of women at midlife and beyond still have and care about sex, says the latest research, out just this week.Great Blog

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  11. Dee

    Many a times people say frequent sex during your youthful age and beyond can reduce life span of an individual. How true is this?

  12. Randy Runyon

    My wife and I are both in our 60’s. Sex is still very important to me and is also good for my mental and physical health. It may be selfish, but I do not intend to give up sex. I would like for my wife to join me, but I intend to continue having sex either way. I am still in good physical shape and have no health problems. If my wife decides she is no longer interested in sex, I guess I will just have to find it elsewhere. Maybe you should take the desires of husbands into consideration in your study.

    • Esther

      I guess you will just have to look elsewhere if it’s so important to you. Having sex to satisfy someone else’s ‘needs’ generally doesn’t work.

  13. John

    Very interesting article. Didn’t know sex can be beneficial to our health. Does it apply to male too?

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