The Sex Lives of Older Adults

A reader submitted the following question:

"How many people over age 50 are still having sex?"

Older adults are often assumed to be celibate, but the truth of the matter is that many of us remain sexually active for our entire lives.

As some evidence of this, let's consider findings from a recent, nationally representative U.S. survey of adults aged 14-94 [1]. This study revealed that a majority of both men (57.9%) and women (51.4%) in their 50s reported having vaginal intercourse in the last year, as did 53.5% of men and 42.2% of women who were in their 60s [1]. Vaginal intercourse was the single most common partnered sexual activity reported among older adults, which is why I used these numbers as my starting point--and this isn't surprising given that the vast majority of them were heterosexual. However, this was far from the only activity reported.

Large numbers of fifty- and sixty-somethings (between one-quarter and one-half, depending upon age and gender) also said they had either given or received oral sex. Some reported having engaged in anal sex, too, but that was significantly less common for both men and women.

Although many of these folks were married, it’s important to note that marriage is just one context in which older adults might have sex. Many of them are involved in casual sexual relationships as well. For example, in online research I’ve conducted on people who have “friends with benefits,” I routinely find folks in their 50s and 60s in my samples.

In other words, casual sex isn’t just for college students.

I should also mention that the majority of men and women in their 50s and 60s appear to be pleasuring themselves, too. In fact, in the national survey previously mentioned, more older adults reported having masturbated than had partnered sex in the past year.

One other finding from this survey worth noting is that many adults in their 70s and beyond were sexually active as well. For instance, 42.9% of men and 21.6% of women aged 70+ reporting vaginal intercourse in the last year. Oral sex was the second most common partnered activity in this age group, but far fewer reported it.

As you can see, there’s no definitive endpoint to being sexually active.

Of course, sexual difficulties are more likely to arise as we age, such as erectile dysfunction in men and vaginal lubrication difficulties in women. One’s level of sexual desire may decrease as well, often corresponding with a slowdown in the production of sex hormones.

Moreover, chronic illnesses and other non-sexual health problems (e.g., arthritis) can make certain sex acts challenging or painful to perform. However, this should not be taken to mean that older adults are no longer capable of being sexually satisfied.

In a survey of over 1,300 older women (aged 67 on average), two-thirds of those who were sexually active reported being at least moderately satisfied with their sex lives [2]. It’s also worth noting that women over age 80 actually had among the highest levels of sexual satisfaction in the sample. 

One final point worth mentioning is that maintaining an active sex life in older age may offer some important health benefits. For instance, a recent study of adults aged 50-89 found that those who reported engaging in any form of sexual activity in the past year evidenced higher levels of cognitive functioning compared to those who reported no sex or masturbation [3]. In other words, sex could potentially be good for an aging brain (learn more about this idea here).

In short, although we tend to encounter more sexual problems as we age, many older folks maintain active and satisfying sex lives--and those who do just might be reaping some important health benefits.

For previous editions of Sex Question Friday, click here. To send in a question for a future edition, click here.

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[1] Herbenick, D., Reece, M., Schick, V., Sanders, S. A., Dodge, B., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2010). Sexual behavior in the United States: Results from a national probability sample of men and women ages 14–94. The Journal of Sexual Medicine7(s5), 255-265.

[2] Trompeter, S. E., Bettencourt, R., & Barrett-Connor, E. (2012). Sexual activity and satisfaction in healthy community-dwelling older women. The American Journal of Medicine125, 37-43.

[3]  Wright, H., & Jenks, R. A. (2016). Sex on the brain! Associations between sexual activity and cognitive function in older age. Age and Ageing.

Image Source: Yeulet

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