Somehow I wound up in a dispute with Dr. Oz. And about orgasms and health, of all things. So, this needs clarification.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, in case you do not know, is a sometime surgeon and a media empire, with a TV show, a radio show, best-selling books, and much more. His shows are criticized by some as being sensational and going beyond the evidence, but I think it is a good idea to bring a focus on health and well-being to a mass market. Let’s face it, his viewers would not be reading The New England Journal of Medicine if the Oz shows went off the airwaves.
One of the Dr. Oz recommendations that has drawn a lot of attention is to have plenty of orgasms to stay healthy. I was drawn into talking about this issue because of a finding on this matter in our research on The Longevity Project. In our work on the Longevity Project, we have been studying over 1,500 bright American men and women who were first examined as children in the 1920s. They were followed for their whole lives, and we have evaluated how well they aged and how long they lived. We ask: who lives long, healthy, and thriving lives, and why? Many of the participants do indeed live very long, happy, healthy lives. One really intriguing finding concerns the women’s frequency of orgasm during sex.
“Patricia” was so sensible and conscientious throughout her life that we nicknamed her Prudent Pat. In 1941, Patricia and the others answered questions about their sex lives. Patricia was prudent but not prudish. When asked, “How well mated are you and your husband, from the strictly sexual point of view?” Patricia’s response was that she was extremely well-mated. She and the other women also reported frequency of orgasm during intercourse, on a scale from “never” to “always.” The average was above the midpoint, revealing a generally good but not outstanding sexual satisfaction. But Patricia was again near the top.
The answers allowed us to create a predictor measuring what the originator of the study, Dr. Terman, called orgasm adequacy. We also spent many years tracking down and gathering the death certificates of the participants, so we would know exactly how long each one lived. Finally, we looked to see if sexual satisfaction would be related to a longer life, even after taking the women’s personalities into account. The startling result was very clear: Women who had a higher frequency of achieving orgasm during intercourse tended to live longer than their less fulfilled peers.
Many women (and men) wish we knew precisely why. The limited sexual information available from several other studies does also suggest an association between sexual activity and health, in both men and women, but the links are hazy. This is not really so surprising when one imagines trying to do a controlled study in which half of the people are randomly assigned to have more sex (or better sex). Not possible. Nevertheless, although it is true that correlation does not mean causation, it is dumb to ignore sets of correlations, that is, pieces of the puzzle, that bear on this issue.
Here’s what we do know. Sexual satisfaction tends to play a role in a happier marriage, and happier marriages play a role in greater sexual satisfaction. And we know that people in stable, fulfilling marriages tend to be healthier and live longer. Further, good health allows more sexual activity, and good sexual activity encourages many people in satisfying relationships to stay in shape and maintain their health. What is causing what? We won’t know until the completion of many other long-term studies of intimacy, personality, behavior, and health. At the moment, we can simply say that a sexually satisfying and happy marriage is one of the good predictors of future health and long life.
In our book on The Longevity Project, Dr. Leslie Martin and I advise readers to “throw away your lists.” This means that there is no single element that is a key to happiness, thriving, health, and long life. There are clusters of behaviors and healthy life patterns that are markers of thriving for most people. There are likely underlying biological predispositions in common toward good health, intimacy, and sexual activity, and also feedback loops toward better biological homeostasis. But there are also many, many bacteria and viruses that are easily transmitted through sexual intimacy and cause diseases ranging from herpes and hepatitis to syphilis and AIDS. And there are also numerous well-documented destructive psychosexual disorders, including hypersexuality (sexual addition).
So, getting back to Dr. Oz, I have been recently quoted in the news as taking issue with Oz’s recommendations to have lots of sex to stay young. But that is not really my gripe at all. Rather, the results of our years of research on well-being and health clearly document that it is your long-term patterns of health behaviors, activities, and social relations that matter most. We do not recommend obsessing about whether this week has brought you a cup of blueberries, two servings of fish, 8.5 hours of daily sleep, 10,000 steps, two hours of yoga, and the Oz-recommended number of orgasms.
If you are interested, The Longevity Project, which explains the long-term pathways to thriving, was published in paperback edition by Plume (see http://www.howardsfriedman.com/longevityproject/ ) and is also available on Kindle and Nook. The book also contains self-assessment quizzes to help you figure your current trajectory.
Photo of Dr. Oz at the Time 100 Gala by David Shankbone; creative commons licenses-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons
Copyright © 2014 Howard S. Friedman, all rights reserved.