Benefits of Sex After 50
From hormones to spirituality, sex can benefit older adults.
Posted Jul 28, 2017
The European Court of Human Rights issued a decision on July 24, 2017, rejecting a ruling of a Portuguese court based on “the assumption that sexuality is not as important for a 50-year-old woman and mother of two children as for someone of a younger age” (majority ruling as quoted by Sewell Chan in The New York Times on July 25, 2017).
Ample evidence from epidemiologic studies — for example, in America, in the Netherlands, in Sweden—shows that sexual relationships remain important to men and to women across the lifespan and easily adapt to changes associated with aging.
This recognition has gained acceptance in modern culture and is reflected in initiatives as varied as the creation of a protected space for older couples at the Hebrew Home for the Elderly in Riverdale who form sexual relationships and the convening of an illustrious panel of international scientists (an endocrinologist, a psychologist, a gynecologist, and a urologist) who declared that “frequent sexual activity can be prescribed as a medicine to improve both general and sexual health of individuals and of the couples.” Note that “sex” is not necessarily limited to intercourse. In research into the lives of older adults, the definition of “sexual behavior” includes “physical tenderness” and can include masturbation.
Here are some of the documented benefits of sexual behavior between two people who have a relationship, although not necessarily a married one, later in life, assuming that they are consenting and that health risks are not present:
At the level of chemistry, for both men and women:
- Sex brings pleasure. Dopamine, released during orgasm, is associated with our basic reward system.
- Sex increases oxytocin, the “cuddle” hormone, and so promotes bonding, positive feelings of attachment, and trust.
- Sex increases testosterone in both men and women. Frequency of sex in younger men appears to protect them from prostate cancer later in life and to enhance the physiology of sexual functioning in women, preventing chronic cystitis, eventual prolapse, and incontinence. It is associated with increased survival in men, especially from heart attacks.
At the level of behavior:
- Sex is movement. and movement is related to happier moods, regardless of what time of day, at least in the (generally younger) 10,000+ people who participated in a random time-sampling study using a smartphone app to track movement and collect self-report data. People who moved—regardless whether the movement was “exercise” or not—recorded happier moods and had higher life satisfaction, according to University of Cambridge, England researchers.
- Sex can be exercise. Just how much “exercise” may be controversial, but, generally, judicious exercise is considered good for our health in many ways and at any age.
- Sex is fun. A 2004 national study showed sex as the #1 activity associated with self-reported happiness.
At the level of emotion:
- Because of the pleasure, sex is associated with increased subjective reports of positive feelings.
- Sexual behavior is also associated with fewer and less frequent symptoms of depression, both in women and in men.
- Physical activity is related to greater life satisfaction.
At the level of cognition:
- Sex enhances self-esteem. At any age, people feel better when they are sought after by other people. Having a partner who wants to be with you in such a close and connected way increases feelings of self-worth, the lynchpin of psychological health, according to theories of psychological health derived from Adlerian principles.
- Sex allows people to believe they have something of value to give. Data document the benefits of generosity to happiness and quality of life. Being a responsive sexual partner is an act of great generosity.
At the interpersonal level:
- By increasing feelings of attachment, sex can lessen feelings of loneliness and isolation, identified as a major health risk in older people.
- Interpersonal intimacy brings all the benefits of a close social relationship as well as a midlife romantic one.
- Relationship intimacy and sex are synergistic, each promoting the other.
- Within long-term marriages, sexual contact helps sustain the marriage even as other stresses associated with aging threaten to challenge it. For example, in one study of couples over 50 who had been married at least 20 years, impediments or barriers to sexual behaviors were of minimal importance as long as physical intimacy continued.
At the cultural level:
- Attitudes towards sexual behavior vary dramatically among people of different cultural backgrounds. Europeans may be more likely than Americans, with our emphasis on the attractiveness of youth, to appreciate the pleasures of physical intimacy as integral to living a good life. If there is a secret to aging well, Frenchwomen must know it.
- Being consistent within one’s cultural view of aging can bring a sense of coherence to one’s identity. A sense of coherence is associated with health and longevity. At the same time, feeling the rejection of a part of the self within one’s culture based on an external characteristic like gender or number of years lived in this world—sexism or ageism—can create conflict and leave one feeling diminished. This has negative health consequences.
- Generational differences in sexual attitudes and practices demonstrate the extent to which people shift behaviors towards consistency with their peers.
Finally, at a spiritual level:
- Being able to take care of someone else sexually invokes feelings of gratitude, a source of appreciation for our resources.
- Rewarding sex can require generosity, tuning in to the needs and wants of another person and reaching out to fill them.
- Through all of the above, sexual behavior between two people who want to enjoy each other through physical touching can be a powerful way to communicate love.
As the European Court of Human Rights affirmed, sexual behavior in people 50 and older has an important role to play in the quality of life, ”physical and psychological relevance for the self-fulfillment [of women]” as well as promoting the welfare of men. The court decision was a wise one, providing institutional support for one of our most basic drives and greatest interpersonal needs.
Copyright 2017 Roni Beth Tower