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Low Sexual Desire Common in Women

Relationships, Including Partner's Problems, Affect Women's Sexual Desire
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WebMD Health News

Oct. 21, 2004 -- Many women -- young and old alike -- have low sexual desire, and it's affecting their relationships, new research shows.

Low sexual desire "is prevalent and distressing to many," reports lead researcher S.R. Leiblum, MD, with the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, N.J.

Leiblum presented her findings at the annual American Society for Reproductive Medicine meeting being held in Philadelphia this week.

They are based on surveys completed by 1,250 women between 20 and 70 years old living in countries around the world. The women answered questions about their sexual activity, their satisfaction with their relationship, their sexual desire, and personal distress they were experiencing.

Leiblum found:

  • One in four premenopausal women and one in three menopausal women have low sexual desire.
  • The women participated in sexual activity less often, initiating sexual activity, having intercourse, and experiencing orgasm and sexual pleasure far less frequently than other women.
  • They felt less sexually desirable and less satisfied with their sex life; that translated into a less-than-satisfactory relationship.
  • Younger women who were menopausal because their ovaries had been surgically removed were significantly more distressed about their low sexual desire.

Their relationships are very different from women with normal sexual desire and deserve more attention from doctors, Leiblum says.

Options for Boosting Low Sexual Desire

"Low sexual desire is certainly common, but it's not universal," says Diana L. Dell, MD, menopause specialist and professor of obstetrics/gynecology/psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. "In a certain number of women, we actually see improvement because pregnancy is no longer an issue, so they're more willing to engage in sexual activity."

Actually, before they are fully into menopause, women typically hold onto their sexual desire because testosterone-producing cells live longer than estrogen-producing cells, she explains.

Testosterone is a male sex hormone, but it is also produced in small amounts by women. Women require a small amount to maintain a healthy sex drive. Testosterone replacement therapy -- like the not-yet-FDA approved patch -- is getting lots of interest.

For many women, however, testosterone therapy may not be the answer, says Dell. "Women's sexual desire is not as simple as testosterone," she tells WebMD. "There are a whole lot of issues -- her health, her partner's health, her partner's dysfunction problems. Testosterone only addresses the hormonal part of her problem.

"We've become very mechanical with lots of human functions," says Dell. "Testosterone may improve sexual function, but it might not. I have patients with lifelong low testosterone and have given them testosterone supplements. They have noticed some improvement, but it isn't magic."

Many people simply get out of the habit of having sex, she says. "They've got kids in the house. Plus, finding time for each other isn't easy."

The women who have enjoyed a normal libido only to see it decline during menopause will benefit most from hormone therapy, Dell says. She puts no stock in other "remedies" like ginseng and herbal combinations.

Women's Sexual Desire Difficult to Study

Carla Roberts, MD, PHD, professor in Reproductive Medicine and Fertility at Emory University School of Medicine, agrees.

Studies show that male hormones are indeed an important part of women's sexual desire -- to a point, she tells WebMD. "Women are more difficult to study than men are."

Nevertheless, the testosterone patch and estrogen/male hormone combination therapies are good options for women with low sexual desire, she says. "We need to recognize that women need testosterone as well as estrogen."

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