Communication and being in a happy relationship, along with health, are important for sexual satisfaction among older people, according to a new study.
According to researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), the University of Glasgow, and University College London, the study is one of the first to look at how health, lifestyle, and relationship factors can affect sexual activity and satisfaction in later life, as well as examines how people respond and deal with the consequences.
The researchers carried out a mixed methods study combining survey data from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3) and in-depth interviews with older men and women.
Out of nearly 3,500 people between the ages of 55 and 74, the survey found that one in four men and one in six women reported having a health problem that affected their sex life. Among this group, women were less likely than men to be sexually active in the previous six months (54 percent vs 62 percent) but just as likely to be satisfied with their sex life (42 percent vs 42 percent).
Follow-up interviews with a sample of participants revealed that older people found it difficult to separate the effects of declining health from those of increasing age, according to the researchers.
Ill health impacted sexual activity in many ways, but most crucially it influenced whether individuals had a partner with whom to have sex. Some older people were more accepting of not having a sex life than others, the researchers discovered.
For those in a relationship, sexual satisfaction was strongly associated with both the quality of communication with their partner and contentment with their relationship, the study found.
The impact of health issues was not always negative — some men and women found themselves having to experiment with new ways of being sexually active and their sex lives improved as a result, the researchers said.
“Health can affect an individual’s sex life in various ways, from having or finding a partner, to physical and psychological limitations on sexual expression,” said Dr. Bob Erens, lead author and an associate professor at LSHTM. “We identified that not many people who reported experiencing problems or lack of satisfaction sought help.
“Although this could be an individual choice or because of a perceived lack of support, it is vital that individuals feel able to make enquiries with health care professionals. In particular, discussing problems can often lead to identification of underlying medical conditions.”
“We’re seeing numerous, interconnected factors influencing sexual activity in older people,” added Dr. Kirstin Mitchell, co-author and a senior research fellow at the University of Glasgow. “Not being in good health can influence mood, mobility and whether a person has a partner, which in turn impact on sexual activity. Medication taken for health conditions often compounds the problem.”
“The study findings suggest that pharmacological approaches, like Viagra, do not always help to resolve sexual difficulties, which need to be seen in the wider context of older people’s lives,” she continued.
The researchers acknowledge the limitations of the study, including that Natsal had an upper age limit of 74 years, and so the study is unable to describe the sexual health and wellbeing of people at older ages.
Natsal-3 is the largest scientific study of sexual health and lifestyles in Britain. Conducted by LSHTM, UCL, and NatCen Social Research, the studies have been carried out every 10 years since 1990, and have involved interviews with more than 45,000 people to date.
The study was published in PLOS ONE.