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Elderly Stay Sexually Active, Defying Stereotype

Study of Men Shows Some Remain Interested in Sex Into Their 90s

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on December 06, 2010

Dec. 6, 2010 -- New research suggests the elderly may be more interested in sex than commonly believed.

A study in the Annals of Internal Medicine shows that about one-third of Australian men in their 70s, 80s, and 90s are sexually active and some wish to have sex more often.

“Although there is still a widely held perception that older people are not interested in sex, our study shows that this is not the case -- even in the tenth decade, one in five men still considered sex to be an important part of their life,” study researcher Zoe Hyde, MPH, of the Western Australian Centre for Health and Ageing in Crawley, Australia, tells WebMD in an email.

Of 3,274 men aged 75 to 95 who were interviewed three times over a 13-year time period, 2,783 provided information about their sex lives and had their hormone levels measured. Almost one-third of these men were still sexually active, which was defined as having at least one sexual encounter in the past year. Sex frequency decreased with advancing age, with men in their 70s having more sex than their counterparts in their 90s, the study showed.

Nearly half of the sexually active seniors in the study said they would like to have more sex, more often.

Health Problems and Sexual Activity

Barriers to sexual activity among seniors include advancing age, lower levels of the male sex hormone testosterone, physical limitations, medication side effects, and diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, which can cause erectile dysfunction.

“Men's health problems appear to be the main reason that older heterosexual couples cease to be sexually active, though lack of a partner and the health status of the partner are also important factors,” says Hyde. “Chronic disease, particularly diabetes, appears to be a major barrier to staying sexually active.”

The men in the new study may be healthier than men in other populations or communities, which could affect the findings. Still, doctors need to take sex lives into consideration when prescribing medications and counseling their older patients, Hyde says.

“Given that many older people want to remain sexually active as they age, clinicians should warn patients when prescribing drugs that have sexual side effects and should suggest alternative agents where appropriate,” she says.

Doctors should not assume that sexual side effects don't matter to older people, she says.

“Currently, the best advice for men wanting to remain sexually active as they age would be to get sufficient physical activity, eat a nutritious and well-balanced diet, maintain a healthy weight, and stop smoking,” she says. All of these lifestyle factors can help people remain healthy longer.

Testosterone Levels

The study did find that testosterone levels were related to sexual activity.

But “it would be premature to suggest testosterone therapy to improve sexual interest and activity in older men for whom lack of interest is a problem at this stage,” Hyde says. “We need controlled trials to confirm this relationship, and to properly explore both the potential benefits and risks of therapy.”

The findings are consistent with what American Geriatrics society president Sharon Brangman, MD, the chief of the division of geriatrics at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y., sees in her practice. Although the new study took place in Australia, Brangman feels it is relevant to men in the U.S. -- and likely to older women as well.

“I have patients in their 70s and 80s who I know are sexually active, but we seem to have a stereotype that old people are not sexually active,” she says. The new study looked at men who live in the community, but sex and sexuality are also part of life in nursing homes, she says.

Men and women in their 70s and beyond are limited by medication side effects, chronic diseases -- especially diabetes and hypertension, and the availability of a partner, she says.

“Women live longer than men, so there is a paucity of available men, and when there are available men, they can be very active,” she says. All of the erectile dysfunction drugs have been helpful for men unless they have heart disease or other problems that prevent them from taking these medications, she says.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Hyde, Z. Annals of Internal Medicine, 2010; vol 153: pp 693-702.

Zoe Hyde, MPH, Western Australian Centre for Health and Ageing, Crawley, Australia.

Sharon Brangman, MD, chief, geriatrics, Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, N.Y.

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