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How Much Is Too Much? Heavy Sexual Activity in 20s Linked To Prostate Cancer

By L. K. Regan

It may not make you grow hair on your palms, but a new study indicates that frequent masturbation (and intense sexual activity more generally) by men in their twenties and thirties may have a link to prostate cancer later in life. On the other hand, sex in a man's fifties seems to protect him from the disease. Will this confusing information change men's sexual habits? Undoubtedly not. But it is important research in the ongoing discussion of how sex impacts the body.

A team of U.K. researchers, primarily from the University of Nottingham, examined the sexual habits of nearly 450 men diagnosed with prostate cancer before the age of 60, comparing them to over 400 men without cancer. The men answered a survey about their sexual histories, and were asked to report their rates of masturbation and intercourse, number of sexual partners, and history of STDs. The results, published in BJUI International in November were mixed. Both the cancer group and the control group had similar rates of sexual activity: 59 percent of the men in both groups had some form of sex (intercourse or masturbation) at least 12 times per month in their twenties, with that rate diminishing over time, to 48 percent in their thirties, 28 percent in their forties, and a mere 12 percent in their fifties. But the men with prostate cancer had certain distinguishing features: 39 percent of them had six or more female partners, as opposed to 31 percent for the non-cancer group; more of them fell into the highest sexual activity group, with 20 or more sex acts per month (40 percent of the cancer group vs. 32 percent of the control group); and the cancer group was more likely to masturbate often, especially in their twenties and thirties (in both cases, to the tune of 10 percent more of the cancer group falling into this category than the control group). Interestingly, by the time the men are in their fifties, these effects even out, and 31 percent of both groups are in the high-sex/high-masturbation categories for their age.

Summing up these results, the study's lead author, Dr. Polyxeni Dimitropoulou, said, "What makes our study stand out from previous research is that we focused on a younger age group than normal and included both intercourse and masturbation at various stages in the participants’ lives. Overall, we found a significant association between prostate cancer and sexual activity in a man’s twenties and between masturbation and prostate cancer in the twenties and thirties. However there was no significant association between sexual activity and prostate cancer in a man’s forties." Most prostate cancer research focuses on older men. By moving the research into younger age groups, the researchers hope to find the starting points for the disease.

Why exactly sex in a man's twenties should have an impact on his prostate down the road is a matter of theory. But Dr. Dimitropoulou has an idea: "Hormones appear to play a key role in prostate cancer and it is very common to treat men with therapy to reduce the hormones thought to stimulate the cancer cells. A man’s sex drive is also regulated by his hormone levels, so this study examined the theory that having a high sex drive affects the risk of prostate cancer.” Before you despair, consider this: the researchers also believe there may be a protective effect from sex in a man's fifties. Why would this be? Again, it's a matter of educated speculation, but, Dr. Dimitropoulou says, "A possible explanation for the protective effect that men in their fifties appear to receive from overall sexual activity, and particularly masturbation, is that the release of accumulated toxins during sexual activity reduces the risk of developing cancer in the prostate area.” So, older men—now is not the time to slow down! Live like it's your twenties all over again.