With the baby boomer generation reaching retirement, the United States is seeing more active adults than ever, so understanding how aging impacts sexually and intimacy is crucial – and it’s not all negative! There are benefits and positive aspects of being sexually active while getting older too. Here are eight common myths about sexuality and aging, and the facts that prove them wrong.
Myth #1: Older people do not have sex
In an article by Loren Stein, M.A. called “Sex and Seniors” in 2015 it was stated that “among 45- to 59-year-olds with sexual partners, some 56 percent said they had sexual intercourse once a week or more. Among 60- to 70-year-olds with partners, 46 percent of men and 38 percent of women have sex at least once a week, as did 34 percent of those 70 or older. “ Therefore, the sexual drive doesn’t shut off, it just slows down a little with age. The idea that adults reach a certain age and just shut down sexually is completely false. Older age does lead to a reduced frequency of sexual behaviors but does not mean that there is a cessation of sexuality or sensual desire.
According to the research published by the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior in 2010, about half of adults ages 50-80 have engaged in sexual intercourse within the year that they were surveyed. Women over 50 years old engage in 5% less intercourse per year as they age and 7% less giving or receiving oral sex per year. Men over 50 years old have a yearly decrease in both intercourse and oral sex by 8%. In a study done by Karraker, A., DeLamater, J., & Schwartz, C. R. (2011), they found that the reason for the decline in sexual behavior was not aging, but other life factors that happened with getting older. Women showed a decreased frequency of sexual behavior when widowed, for example, and men showed a decrease of sexual behavior with the increase of health issues.
Myth #2: Aging adults cannot get pregnant
The general opinion from the medical community is that once a woman is post menopausal, she is unable to get pregnant, but the times and duration of menopause vary for many women, causing the post menopausal age to range. Due to advancements in fertility treatments, women can take medications that allow pregnancy to occur much later in life. The oldest women to give birth was 70 year old named Rajo Devi Lohan in India. Several women in their 60’s have given birth in the early 2000’s with the help of In Vitro Fertilization. While pregnancy is more difficult for an older women, it is not impossible. Women have lost about 90% of their eggs by the age of 40, leaving a very slim possibility for pregnancy, but while the eggs have an expiration date, the uterus does not. According to an interview with Dr. David Adamson with Medical Daily, “The bottom line is that the uterus can function just about until the death of the woman”. While the oldest mother to conceive naturally was 59, INF, or In Vitro Fertilization, is an option at all times. There are ethical concerns about becoming a mother at an older age such as maternal mortality rate, illness during aging, and overall ability to care for a child. The United States will not allow a child to be adopted to a women over 50 for those ethical reasons.
Myth #3: STI rates must be low in older adults
According to the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, the rate of Sexually Transmitted Infections in the over 50 population in the United States is growing at a faster pace then the population of people under 40. There are many reasons for this rise in contracting STIs among this generation. First, the baby boomer generation is aging, creating a large population of people over 60. Second, new trends in medical advancements with performance enhancing drugs are causing an even higher rate of sexual intercourse with people as they age. Third, there is rising number of mid-life divorces. These newly single middle aged and older adults are now looking for dates online through websites, and even mobile apps. This quick method of connecting has caused more availability to date, more access to partners, and ultimately more sexual behavior. Lastly, these individuals may have less sex education than younger adults. If they were in a marriage for the first part of their lives, they did not have partners other than their spouse at the start of the HIV/AIDS crisis. The use of barrier protection and other methods of contraception were far less widely used years ago. Therefore, if these newly divorced individuals are behaving in the same sexual way that they did when they were younger, they will be at a higher risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection. Because older women have less concern about getting pregnant, they may not prioritize barrier methods to protect against infections.
Myth #4: Older women do not desire sex
Many people feel that as women age, specifically in a marriage, that they lose all sexual desire. This is not the case. As mentioned, women, as well as men, have a slight decrease in the amount of sexual behavior as they age yearly after 50. Women still have the ability to feel sexual and intimate desire throughout their entire life. As women reach menopause, their naturally produced estrogen decreases, causing less natural lubrication during intercourse. This is a common issue and many physicians prescribe estrogen creams to insert vaginally, or simply recommend an over the counter personal lubricant. While desire may decrease, desire also ebbs and flows. Many reasons that women report feeling less sexual with age has to do with cultural pressures, emotional issues within a relationship, self esteem, and medical problems. The North American Menopausal Society states that desire is a combination of drive, beliefs, and motivation. While drive is biological and may be impacted by hormone change over time, beliefs and motivation are psychological and able to change based on perception. Women have a lot more control over their sexual desire while aging then previously though.
Myth #5: Older men have constant Erectile Dysfunction
Just as it may be a common assumption that women lose all sexual desire as they age, many believe that it is a natural occurrence for men to have erectile dysfunction as they age. While more men experience erectile dysfunction at older ages as opposed to younger ages, it is not a natural part of aging. Only 5% of men under 40 experience erectile dysfunction, but 44% of men in their 60’s have experienced it. According to research done at Harvard Medical School, the reason for this is that erectile dysfunction reflects the impact of the chronic diseases that are common with age. The most important are atherosclerosis and hypertension, which affect blood vessels, and diabetes, which strikes both blood vessels and nerves. Medications that older men take can interfere with sexual function, including some that treat high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety and depression. In addition to medical causes, about 30% of erectile dysfunction stems from a psychological cause. Aside from ED, there are other changes that do naturally occur with men’s erections as they age. Their erections may not be as firm, and foreplay may need to be extended to allow longer time for a satisfying erection.
Myth #6: People over 50 don’t have casual sex
The divorce rate for people in the middle and later stages of their lives has increased with the aging of the baby boomer generation. This new population of single adults in their 50’s through their 70’s has created a more sexual group of aging adults. 23% of men over fifty that are having sex report that their most recent sex partner was with a “friend or acquaintance”. Women over 50 report casual sex about 13% of the time. There is also a growing number of adults over 50 that enjoy a relationship with a “friends with benefits” dynamic. Especially for much older adults, getting married, or remarried, may not be the goal. They report wanting to enjoy the intimacy and companionship, but without the need to create a family or other aspects that are typically the goals of younger adults. One reason why many people think that older adults do not age engage in casual sex is that it is a topic that people do not talk about. Terms such as “dirty old man” and “cougar” stigmatize and degrade the sexuality of sexual older adults. Increased cultural dialogue about aging and sexuality will increase awareness and reduce stigma.
Myth #7: Urinary Incontinence causes older adults to have accidents during sex
Some older adults experience urinary incontinence which impacts sexuality. This can cause feelings of shame or discomfort and get in the way of the possibilities of great sexual experiences. Women that struggle with incontinence experience coital incontinence 10% to 27% of the time. There are several reasons why urine may leak during a sexual encounter. Pressure on the abdomen can cause leakage of urine during sex. Other reasons include overactive bladder, weakened pelvic floor muscles, and complications of prostate issues, including prostate cancer. While women have reported loss of urine throughout the duration of the sexual encounter, older men have reported loss of urine during foreplay. A study by Guay, A., and Seftel, A. (2008) showed that 38% percent of older men that had no daytime incontinence had experienced a loss of urine during foreplay. While this is an issue that can have an effect on aging adults, there are solutions to not let it hinder enjoyable sex. One can prepare for sex by avoiding large amounts of fluids before being sexual and putting down a towel for a precaution. Talking about it reduces feelings of shame and secrecy. An older couple can experiment with different positions that are less likely to put pressure on the bladder, such as rear entry and side by side positions. Women and men can be proactive about their pelvic floor muscles by practicing kegel exercises. If a man or a women uses catheters for incontinence, there are several options available to incorporate this during sex. A catheter can be bent and taped to create room for intercourse. Some couples find that eroticising the catheter use reduces shame and increases pleasure.
Myth #8: Sex is dangerous for older adults
Aging by itself does not cause a danger. The potential risks for older adults are when they have fallen out of shape or have developed a medical condition or disability, but this also does not make sex dangerous or impossible. Older adults that struggle with high-risk conditions should exercise precaution, just as they would with any other physical activity that they want to engage in. Because older women tend to suffer with lower bone density post menopause, it may not be advisable to engage in acrobatic sex. Men with high blood pressure or heart conditions should exercise caution when having long duration or highly aerobic sex. Older adults who have a disability can modify their practices and setting to support a healthy sex life such as having bed modifications or using sex aides and toys. But the bottom line is that sex for older adults can be enjoyable and satisfying.