|Study Sheds New Light on Intimate Lives of Older
Older Adults Are Active Despite Increased
Sexual Problems with Age
A majority of older Americans are sexually active and view intimacy
as an important part of life, despite a high rate of “bothersome” sexual
problems, according to a new report in the Aug. 23, 2007, issue
of The New England Journal of Medicine. The findings come
from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project, research
supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The findings
shed new light on the intimate social relationships and health
of people ages 57 to 85, informing health care providers and patients
about sexual norms in the older U.S. population.
The project is the first comprehensive, nationally representative
survey to assess the prevalence of sexual activity, behaviors and
problems in relation to health status among people in their late
50s and beyond. The study provides information about a number of
important aspects of health and sexuality with age, including sexual
problems in relation to specific chronic health conditions such
as arthritis, diabetes and hypertension; relationships between
physical health problems or limitations generally and sexual activity;
and physician communication about sexuality at older ages. Physical
health, the researchers found, was more strongly associated with
many sexual problems than age alone.
The study has implications for health education efforts to prevent
sexually transmitted disease in older people. Although data from
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests stability
in HIV diagnoses among Americans aged 50 and older, the number
of older people diagnosed with AIDS and living with HIV is increasing,
as individuals who were infected with HIV at younger ages are living
longer before progressing to AIDS. However, sexual activity among
older adults poses risks for new cases of HIV, as approximately
15 percent of newly diagnosed HIV infections are among Americans
over age 50.
Led by Stacy Tessler Lindau, M.D., who conducted the study with
Linda Waite, Ph.D., and others at the University of Chicago, the
research was funded primarily by the National Institute on Aging
(NIA), a component of NIH. Additional funding came from NIH’s Office
of Research on Women’s Health, Office of AIDS Research and Office
of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research and from private-sector
sources. Data collection was supported by the National Opinion
Research Center at the University of Chicago. Georgeanne E. Patmios
of NIA’s Behavioral and Social Research Program is program officer
for the project.
“Despite the aging of the population, little had been known about
the intimate lives of older adults,” said NIA Director Richard
J. Hodes, M.D. “This study expands our knowledge by reporting,
on a national scale, data about sexual functioning and health among
Dr. Lindau expects the study to help open a dialogue between older
patients and their doctors as older Americans were very receptive
to the survey and its questions. This openness suggests that, when
asked, many older people want to talk about this part of their
lives. “We found, despite the high prevalence of problems, that
most older adults have never discussed sex with a physician. From
a medical and a public health perspective, we have an opportunity
and an obligation to do better patient education and counseling
about health-related and potentially preventable and treatable
sexual problems,” Dr. Lindau said.
The researchers gathered information from a nationally representative
sample of 3,005 men and women ages 57 to 85 years, asking about
each person’s marital or other relationship status, frequency and
types of sexual activity during the past 12 months, physical health,
and communication with a physician about sex. They also queried
sexually active respondents about the presence of sexual problems.
“This study breaks new ground in social and behavioral research,” said
Richard Suzman, Ph.D., director of NIA’s Behavioral and Social
Research Program. “Its portrait of this aspect of older Americans’ lives
suggests a previously uncharacterized vitality and interest in
sexuality that carries well into advanced age, which perhaps has
not been appreciated as an important part of late life.”
The study found that many older adults are sexually active, but
about half of the men and women surveyed reported at least one
sexual problem and about a third report at least two problems.
- In general, older adults are sexually active. A large
portion of respondents said they were sexually active in the
preceding 12 months, but the percentage declined with age — from
73 percent of those age 57 to 64, to 53 percent of those age
65 to 74, to 26 percent of those age 75 to 85. Older women, however,
were significantly less likely to report sexual activity than
older men and less likely to be in intimate relationships, due
in part to women’s status as widows and the earlier mortality,
on average, of men.
- Healthier people are more likely to report being sexually
active. Eighty-one percent of men and 51 percent of women
reporting excellent or very good health said they had been
sexually active in the past 12 months. Of those in fair or
poor health, a considerably lower percentage (47 percent of
men and 26 percent of women) reported activity in the previous
year. Diabetes and hypertension were strongly associated with
some sexual concerns.
- About half of sexually active older adults report at least
one “bothersome” sexual problem. Thirty-seven percent
of sexually active men said they had erectile difficulties.
Women most often reported low desire (43 percent), difficulty
with vaginal lubrication (39 percent), and inability to climax
- Most older adults have not discussed sex with their doctors.
Despite the high prevalence of sexual problems, only 38 percent
of men and 22 percent of women said they had discussed sex with
a physician since age 50.
The NIA leads the federal effort supporting and conducting research
on aging and the medical, social and behavioral issues of older
people. For information on research and aging, go to www.nia.nih.gov.
Publications on research and on a variety of topics of interest
on health and aging can be viewed and ordered by visiting the NIA
website or can be ordered by calling toll-free 1-800-222-2225.
NIA’s Age Page on sexuality in later life is available
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information is available at www.nih.gov/icd/od.
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Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and
Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and
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and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research,
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