Scientists at the University of Chicago Medical Center conducted a study of nearly 2,000 people between the ages of 57 and 85.
The study found that about 70% of men and 62% of women with diabetes and sexual partners were found to engage in sexual activity two or three times a month -- comparable to people without diabetes.
The study also found that:
- Men were more likely to express a lack of interest in sex if they had diabetes.
- Men also were more likely to suffer erectile dysfunction if they had diabetes.
- Women as well as men with diabetes reported a higher rate of orgasm difficulty, including climaxing too quickly for men, or not at all, which was reported by both men and women.
- Only 19% of women compared to 47% of men, all with diabetes, had discussed sexual problems with a doctor, and men were more likely to talk about it than women.
- Men in the study regardless of age or diabetes status were more likely than women to be married or living with a partner, and more men than women said they were sexually active.
The research was done as part of the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project, which involves in-home interviews, self-administered questionnaires, blood tests to assess diabetes status, and medication audits of 1,993 participants.
Patients and Doctors Should Discuss Sexual Activity
"Patients and doctors need to know that most middle age and older adults with partners are still sexually active despite their diabetes," says study researcher Stacy Lindau, MD, associate professor obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago, in a news release. "However, many people with diabetes have sexual problems that are not being addressed."
She says almost half the women in the age group studied do not have sexual partners, and that women with diabetes are much less likely than women without diabetes to have a partner.
"Those who have partners were more likely than men to avoid sex because of a problem and were less far less likely than men to discuss a sexual problem with their doctors."
The study found, based on blood tests, that:
- 47% of men had diabetes.
- 22% had the disease but hadn't been previously diagnosed.
- Almost 40% of the women had diabetes, including 20.5% who had been diagnosed and 19% not previously diagnosed.
Researchers say those findings are comparable to previous studies of people over age 60 and consistent with the estimate of 12 million people with diabetes in the U.S. over the age of 60.
The researchers report that very little has been known up until now about sexuality among people with undiagnosed diabetes, who typically are earlier in their stage of the disease and who don't know that they have the condition.
"Ignorance of the diagnosis protects individuals from the psychological burden and stigma associated with having diabetes," Lindau says. "The elevated prevalence of orgasm difficulties in people unaware of their diabetes suggests that these are predominantly physical."
She says erectile dysfunction, as well as loss of interest in sex among men with a diagnosis, may in part be due to the "psychological burden" associated with the disease.
The study found that 60% of men without diabetes had masturbated in the past 12 months, but the rate was only 47% for men who had been diagnosed, or had diabetes and didn't know it.
The researchers say only 22.5% of women reported masturbating in the past year. About 29% of women without diabetes did so, compared to only 15% who had the disease whether it had been diagnosed or not.
Women, like men with diabetes -- diagnosed or not diagnosed -- had a higher prevalence of difficulties with having orgasms.
Importance of Addressing Sexual Problems
"Failure to recognize and address sexual issues among middle age and older adults with diabetes may impair quality of life and adaptation to the disease," says Marshall Chin, MD, one of the researchers and a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. "Sexual problems are common in patients with diabetes and many patients are not discussing these issues with their physicians."
The researchers write that the rate of erectile dysfunction was not "markedly elevated" in men with undiagnosed diabetes (36%), compared to men without diabetes (32%). However, the inability to experience orgasm was high in men without diabetes, and comparable to men who had been diagnosed with the disease.
The study findings suggest "that loss of orgasmic function may not only occur as a consequence of erectile dysfunction ... but also may actually precede erectile dysfunction, at least as perceived by some men with diabetes."
"Attention to potentially treatable sexual problems in middle-aged and older adults with diabetes should improve quality of life and enhance overall diabetes management," the authors write.
The study is published online in advance of print publication in the October issue of Diabetes Care.