You may have thought that your sex life would end with your fiftieth birthday—but according to some new research, odds are you're still going to be having a pretty good time in your later years. Researchers at the University of Chicago reviewed information gathered from 3,000 men and women between the ages of 57 and 84, and discovered that for men, at least, an active and satisfying sex life is a common occurrence later in life.
The study involved statistical analysis of data on 1455 men and 1550 women surveyed as part of the 2005–2006 National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP). Researchers sought to "examine the prevalence of sexual problems across different sociodemographic groups, and risk factors for these problems in multiple domains of life." Their findings are published in the August issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine.
Let's start with the good news. An impressive 68 percent of men surveyed reported having sex in the last year—compared with a mere 42 percent of women. Some of this difference researchers attributed to the availability of partners. Men are more likely to still have their long-term relationships intact—only 35 percent of men aged 70 and older reported having lost a long-term partner, as opposed to 70 percent of women in the same age category. And, for men whose sexual interest decreases with age, the years themselves are probably not the culprits. According to Edward Laumann, the lead researcher on the study, "It's not age per se; that when you get to 80 it's all over with. It's driven by more proximate factors such as if you become obese, or you're smoking too much, or you contract diabetes. Medications can depress sexual interest. The aging process itself is not a major factor driving these results." In fact, Laumann suggests that doctors investigate underlying causes when a patient reports decreased sexual interest—because often this can be a sign of a more pressing medical problem.
What else will kill your sex life? And who's having good sex? Some of the results are pretty predictable. For example, men had less interest in sex and difficulty achieving orgasm when they were experiencing trouble in their relationships. And, the happier the men perceived their relationships to be, the more pleasing they reported the sex to be. More sex also tends to be better sex: Men who have sex infrequently—no more often than once a month—were 2.4 times as likely to describe a lack of pleasure from sex. This same group also suffered from erectile dysfunction, performance anxiety, and a lack of sexual interest.
Though interest in sex remained high in even the oldest age category, the study concluded that getting the equipment to work became increasingly complicated: Men between 75 and 85 were 1.9 times as likely to report trouble maintaining an erection as their 57 to 64 year-old counterparts; and they were 2.4 times as likely to report inability to orgasm. In fact, erectile dysfunction, which the study found to be 31 percent in the 57 to 64 age-group, rises to over 40 percent in men older than 64. And, Laumann reports, he has other research suggesting that 14 percent of men have used medication for this condition. But—once they got all systems working, older men reported just as much satisfaction from sex as their younger counterparts.
Now for a couple of surprises—and who doesn't love sexual surprises? In men, a history of sexually transmitted diseases increased the risk of finding sex unpleasant five-fold—even if the STD was in the distant past. Getting a college degree, however, is a big help; men with diplomas had more satisfying sex, and an easier time achieving orgasm, than men who didn't finish high school—perhaps because more educated men are more likely to be willing to discuss their sexual problems and to seek solutions. Then again, maybe not—because that result flips among men who just have some college. They had twice as much erectile dysfunction as the high school drop-outs.
Here's the really bad news: If you're having sexual problems, you can't drink your way out of them. For women in the study, daily consumption of alcohol was associated with increased sexual desire and pleasure. But for men, no such effect was found.