Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

What’s Your Sexual Life Expectancy?

How to live a long, healthy, and sexually fulfilled life

Everyone wants to live long and healthy lives, and being sexually fit can help you enjoy your life that much more. The idea of sexual life expectancy comes from two large-scale surveys carried out by University of Chicago researchers Stacy Tessler Lindau and Natalia Gavrilova. Using data from two nationally representative samples of American adults, they calculated estimated years left of sexual activity for the 30 to 50-something set. Their results provide a new way of thinking about sexuality and a guide to guesstimate how long you can expect to remain sexually active and healthy.

Lindau and Gavrilova had access both to the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study of health, personality, and well-being and the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP). This gave them data from over 6,000 midlife adults of all walks of life and all across the U.S. In both studies, respondents answered questions about their self-rated health (excellent, very good, fair, or poor), and provided ratings on the quality of their sex lives (frequency, activity, partnership, and interest). The researchers defined sexual activity as essentially any form of sexual contact (within 6 months for MIDUS and 12 months for NSHAP), and interest as how much thought and effort respondents put into sex. Elsewhere, I reported on the NSHAP findings; here, I’ll show how Lindau and Gavrilova used this and the MIDUS study to develop their unique approach to understanding sexuality in the midlife years and beyond.

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The idea of a sexual life expectancy comes the underlying premise that your life expectancy is more than the length of time you will live. It’s not just that most of us want to live a long life, we want to live a healthy one. Statisticians calculate life expectancy by measuring the average number of years that people in a given age group will be able to survive. Health life expectancy is the average length of time that people can expect to remain in good health.

How, you may wonder, can statisticians know how long you can live a healthy life? Their magic formula comes from asking large numbers of people of a given age to rate their own perceived health. When they plug that number into their magic formulas, they come up with an age to which you’ll feel healthy too. Similarly, they can devise a measure of your active life expectancy or how long you will remain disability-free enough to maintain your independence.

With this background, let's see how Lindau and Gavrilova defined sexual life expectancy. They used the ratings the two national survey participants provided of their own sexual activity to come up with “the average number of years spent as sexually active.” By connecting this number with self-ratings of health, furthermore, they could also find out the relationship between sexual life expectancy and overall health. 

The general findings about frequency of sexual activity confirmed what other studies have reported. Women show a steeper drop-off by age group than men on sexual activity, but gender differences vanish when the statistics take marital status into account. Regardless of gender, though, among those who were sexually active, about two-thirds said they enjoyed the quality of their sex life.

The next step was to plot out the proportion of people remaining active sexually using age 30 as a starting point. Among all, including those without a partner, sexually active life expectancy was about 10 years lower than overall life expectancy.  Men at 30 can expect about 35 more years of an active sex life, and women can expect 31.  However, when partner status comes into play, the numbers change substantially. Now it is women who have the sexual life expectancy edge, but only by 1 year (38 for women, 37 for men).  Since women outlive men, though, heterosexual women will still spend more years technically inactive sexually than men, at least in terms of partnered sex.

The findings go beyond age, though. Age alone, and even partnered status, doesn’t determine your sexual life expectancy. People in better health will have a longer sexually active life and a greater chance of remain interested in sex. Therefore, as is true for so many areas involving quality of life, being in good health pays off.  All those health-related behaviors you work so hard to maintain will increase your sexual life expectancy as well as your ability to live a long and healthy life.

To calculate your life expectancy, then, you need to start by anticipating whether or not you’ll have a partner, at least based on the Linden and Gavrilova study. Then rate your own health right now. The higher your self-rated health is right now, the longer your sexual life expectancy will be.  If you come up with a rating of fair or poor, take steps now to change some of those unhealthy behaviors. Going to the gym, quitting smoking, and watching what you eat and drink will not only make you healthier, but will increase your sexual life expectancy. 

By being sexually active, you can also benefit from a higher overall sense of well-being. Nearly 1,950 women participating in the San Diego site of the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) Study as reported by Ipsit Vahia provided ratings of their psychological health using measures of self-efficacy, optimism, attitudes toward aging, resilience, physical and emotional symptoms, depression, and cognitive functioning. The women highest in subjectively-rated successful aging rated themselves as resilient, optimistic, and free from emotional or physical symptoms. They also rated their current levels of sexuality, allowing the researchers to evaluate the contributions of involvement in sexual relations in the context of the larger study.  They were asked to report on whether sex was still a “part of your life” in the last six months, with or without a partner, to rate their levels of sexual desire, arousal and satisfaction, to indicate their frequency of reaching orgasm, and their level of sexual dysfunction (pain, need for lubrication, tightness). 

Although the older WHI women were less likely to be sexually active, as in the Linden and Gavrilova study, there was no relationship between age and sexual satisfaction. Sexual activity wasn’t related to general well-being but sexual satisfaction was.

The findings from these studies provide evidence about the role of sexuality in overall health and happiness. Having a long sexually active life expectancy can buy you additional years of psychological health.

Your sexual life expectancy will reflect the steps you take now, no matter what your age, to prolong your overall health. Staying close to your partner can benefit you now in terms of your happiness and health, and in the future, considering the role of partnered status in sexual life expectancy.

Remember that sexual life expectancy, like any life expectancy measure, is based on averages. By following the principles of good health in general, you can the odds and make yours long and fulfilling, no matter what your age.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013

References:

Lindau, S. T., & Gavrilova, N. (2010). Sex, health, and years of sexually active life gained due to good health: evidence from two US population based cross sectional surveys of ageing. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 340(7746).

Vahia, I. V., Thompson, W. K., Depp, C. A., Allison, M., & Jeste, D. V. (2012). Developing a dimensional model for successful cognitive and emotional aging. International Psychogeriatrics, 24(4), 515-523. doi: 10.1017/s1041610211002055

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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