Older Americans Having Sex, Just Not Talking About It -- to Docs

Megan Brooks

May 03, 2018

Most older Americans are interested in sex, but only about half of those with a romantic partner are sexually active and many don't talk about sex with their partner or clinician, according to a University of Michigan poll released today.

"Sexual health among older adults doesn't get much attention but is linked closely to quality of life, health and well-being," Erica Solway, PhD, coassociate director of the poll, said in a news release.

"It's important for older adults and the clinicians who care for them to talk about these issues and about how age-related changes in physical health, relationships, lifestyles and responsibilities such as caregiving, affect them," said Solway.

The University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging asked a nationally representative sample of 1002 adults aged 65 to 80 years about their views on relationships and sex and their experiences related to sexual health.

Nearly three quarters (72%) of those surveyed have a current romantic partner (married, partnered, or in a relationship) and most (92%) have been in a stable relationship for 10 years or longer. Among those without a current romantic partner, 13% have been on a date with someone new in the past 2 years.

Taking the Sex Pulse of Older Americans

Overall, 76% of older adults said sex is an important part of a romantic relationship at any age, with men more likely than women to hold this view (84% vs 69%).

Two in five (40%) said they still have sex. Sexual activity declined with age, from 46% for those aged 65 to 70 years, to 39% for those aged 71 to 75, to 25% for those aged 76 to 80. Older men were more likely to report being sexually active than older women (51% vs 31%), as were those who said they were in good health (45% vs 22%).

About half of those with a romantic partner (54%) reported being sexually active compared with only 7% of those without a romantic partner; 92% of those who are sexually active say intimacy is an important part of a romantic relationship and 83% say it is important to their overall quality of life.

This survey just confirms that the need for and interest in sexual intimacy doesn't stop at a certain age.

Overall, about two thirds of respondents (65%) said they were interested in sex; 30% were extremely or very interested and 35% were somewhat interested. Half of elderly men (50%) said they were extremely or very interested in sex compared with 12% of women. However, the percentage of adults very interested in sex declined with age, from 34% at age 65 to 70, to 28% at age 71 to 75, to 19% for those aged 76 to 80.

About three in four older adults (73%) said they were satisfied with their sex life, with women more likely to be satisfied than men. Those in better health were also more apt to be satisfied with their sex life.

Who's Talking About Sex?

"This survey just confirms that the need for and interest in sexual intimacy doesn't stop at a certain age," Alison Bryant, PhD, senior vice president of research for AARP, a cosponsor of the poll, said in the news release.

Sixty-two percent of older adults polled said they would talk to their healthcare provider if they were having a problem with their sexual health, yet only 17% had actually done so in the past 2 years. Of those who had talked with their doctor about sexual health, 60% said they initiated the conversation themselves and 40% said their doctor started the conversation. Most of those who had talked with their provider about their sexual health said they were comfortable doing so (88%).

"Although most older adults say that they would talk with their doctor about sexual concerns, health care providers should routinely be asking all of their older patients about their sexual health and not assume that bringing up the issue will offend or embarrass them," said Bryant.

The poll also found that 18% of men and 3% of women have recently taken medications or supplements to improve sexual function and most said it was helpful (77%).

This is a notable finding, the University of Michigan pollsters say. While some of these older adults may be taking prescription medications to aid sexual function, others may be taking over-the-counter supplements. Given potential side effects and drug interactions, they suggest providers ask patients about supplement use.

Results of the poll are available online.

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