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Changing how we see aging

Sex, Romance, and Relationships of Older Adults

Why do older adults report a decline in sexual experience?

The state of well-being among older adults does not seem to be improving. A recent AARP report compared sex and well-being in 1999, 2004, and 2009. Although overall, midlife and older adults currently have a positive outlook on life, this is less so than in 2004. Both the frequency of sexual intercourse and overall sexual satisfaction are down close to ten points since 2004. Just over four out of ten say that they are satisfied with their sex lives, down from half in 2004. While the frequency of self-stimulation and sexual thoughts remain unchanged. Younger respondents, men, and Hispanics in general are more likely to report being satisfied.

Why should older adults report a decline in general well-being, particularly sexual experience? Several key factors influence sexual activity, including health, medications, stress, finances, and exercise. Health—as reflected by increased use of prescription medications--seems to mirror this decline in general sexual satisfaction and well-being. The most prevalent medications are for cholesterol, taken by 36 percent of all older adults—a number that has doubled since 1999. A similar increase appears in the use of blood pressure medications, which 43 percent of the older population takes--up from 36 percent in 1999. There was an increase in diagnosis of erectile dysfunction for 23 percent of men in 2009, compared to 17 percent in 2004.

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Men continue to think about sex more often than women. They see it as more important to their quality of life, engage in sexual activities more often, are less satisfied without a partner, and are twice as likely as women (21 vs 11 percent) to admit to sexual activity outside of their relationship. Distinct male-female differences exist across age groups.

Men report less sexual intercourse, kissing or hugging, touching and caressing, self stimulation, oral and anal sex with increasing age (from45 to 70+). Women—although the overall percentage is nearly half of that for men—tend to report a peak of activity at age 50-59, with hugging and kissing remaining stable over all ages.

The good news is that those who have sex at least once a week, 84 percent, are satisfied. Those less satisfied report having sex less frequently. Half of all single and dating males report that they rarely or not at all, use protection during sex. This rate goes down to 29% for women. The statistic is still troubling, given that one in four persons with HIV/AIDS was an older adult in 2005. A fascinating paradox is the quality of life rating. Although both male and female—whether with a current or recent partner or not—show a decrease in reporting high overall quality of life since five years ago (48% from 50%), everyone expects their quality to increase in five years time, in some cases above the peak of five years ago (57%). By age 70, this optimism for the future diminishes, although one in three still report that the future appears more positive!

Sexual activity and well-being are intertwined. We should be aware of the impact that medication, stress, financial situation, and exercise have on our overall sexual health and well-being.

© USA Copyrighted 2013 Mario D. Garrett

Mario Garrett, Ph.D., is a professor at the school of social work, San Diego State University.

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