You’re probably familiar with the standard prescription for longevity: Don't smoke. Exercise daily. Eat a low-fat, low-calorie diet. Get at least seven hours of sleep a night. Don’t abuse alcohol or other drugs. And cultivate emotional closeness with friends and family. But one more recommendation that should be added to the list—make love regularly.
English researchers surveyed the sexual frequency of 918 reasonably healthy male residents of the Welsh village, Caerphilly, who were 45 to 59 when the study began (1979-83). A decade later, they checked back with the men when they were then 55 to 69. One hundred fifty had died, 67 from heart attack and 83 from other causes. They correlated the men’s sexual frequency from the original survey with their death or survival 10 years later. Compared with the men who had sex just once a month, those who reported it twice a week had only half the death rate. For the entire group, as sexual frequency increased, risk of death decreased.
When this study was published, critics pounced, saying that sex is a sign of good health, so it probably wasn’t the sex that extended the men’s lives, but the fact that they were healthier to begin with and as a result, had more sex.
Perhaps, but among the men with the highest and lowest sexual frequencies, there were no significant differences in smoking, weight, blood pressure, or heart disease. So compared with the least sexual men, the most sexual did not appear to be significantly healthier.
The only health difference involved cholesterol. Some men were high, others low. But we would expect the men with the highest cholesterol to have a high death rate from heart attack. In fact, high-cholesterol men in the group with the greatest sexual frequency had among lowest death rates from heart disease. The researchers’ conclusion: In middle-aged men, regular sex helps prevent death.
This conclusion contradicts a good deal of traditional advice about health and well-being. The Apostle Paul wrote: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” In traditional Indian and Chinese culture, ejaculation was viewed as a drain on a man's vitality. As men grew older, they were told to ejaculate less and less. And in French, orgasm is called, “le petit mort,” the little death.
But the medical literature sides with the British study. Two other studies show that greater sexual frequency is associated with healthier, longer life.
Swedish researchers studied 392 elderly residents of Gothenburg (166 men, 226 women) from age 70 until 75. There was a significant association between death and cessation of sexual activity.
In another study, researchers compared the sex lives of 100 women who'd had heart attacks and 100 similar controls who hadn’t. Prior to their heart attacks, the women with heart disease were much less satisfied with their sex lives.
Why would sex prolong life? There are several possible explanations:
• Frequent sex means an intimate relationship. Many studies show that close personal ties enhance health and extend longevity.
• Sex is exercise, and regular exercise is a cornerstone of health.
• And frequent sex improves immune function. At Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, researchers surveyed 111 young adults about their frequency of partner sex, and then tested their saliva for a key component of the immune system, immunoglobulin A (IgA). Compared with participants who reported partner sex less than once a week, those who had sex once or twice a week had significantly higher IgA levels.
This research adds some new spin to the slogan Nike uses to promote its athletic shoe: “Just do it.” Yes, do it. Sex is good for you—and it just might prolong your life.
Charnetski, C. and F.X. Brennan. “Sexual Frequency and Salivary Immunoglobulin A (IgA),” Psychological Reports (2004) 94:839.
Davey-Smith, G. et al. “Sex and Death: Are They Related? Findings for the Caerphilly Cohort Study,” BMJ (1997) 315(7123):1641.