Lifestyle and exercise

Age is no barrier to an active sex life

Elderly people continue to have an active sex life sometimes well into their eighth or ninth decade, The Times and Daily Mail reported on August 23 2007.

The Times included a medical briefing from Dr Thomas Stuttaford, who said it is more common for sexual activity to be abandoned for medical reasons than for loss of libido.

The stories are based on a survey of over 3,000 Americans aged 57 to 85 years. The survey, which appears to be well conducted, provides information on the frequency of sexual activity in older adults in the US.

The study found that sexual activity was associated with good health. However, we cannot say that one is causing the other. Sexual activity is associated with an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and responsible sexual behaviour should be encouraged regardless of age.

Where did the story come from?

Drs Lindau, Schumm and colleagues from the University of Chicago and other medical institutions in the US carried out this survey. It was supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health. The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal New England Journal of Medicine .

What kind of scientific study was this?

The study is a survey (cross-sectional study) of a nationally representative sample of 3,005 adults aged 57 to 85 from households in the US.

Researchers interviewed participants between July 2005 and March 2006, collecting information on their marital and cohabiting history in addition to a rating of their own physical health. For sexually active individuals, information was collected on type and frequency of sexual activity in the past 12 months, as was information on the presence of sexual problems and how problematic they were.

What were the results of the study?

The researchers found that the likelihood of being sexually active declined with age and was lower among women of all ages. Of those who were sexually active, 54% reported having sex at least two to three times per month.

The researchers also found that there was a relationship between being sexually active and reporting good health.

Half of all respondents reported having at least one sexual problem. However, only 38% of men and 22% of women had discussed these with their doctors. A higher prevalence of sexual problems was noted in people who reported fair or poor health.

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

The researchers conclude that many older adults are sexually active. They say the results suggest that sexual problems are frequent among older adults, though these are infrequently discussed with doctors.

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

The definitions used in this survey of "sex" or "sexual activity" are , “Any mutually voluntary activity with another person that involves sexual contact, whether or not intercourse or orgasm occurs.” This must be kept in mind when interpreting the results.

  • There is no way to validate people’s responses in surveys such as these. This is not to say that there is any explicit reason to disbelieve them.
  • As with all surveys, which are cross-sectional studies, it is not possible to establish causal links between the factors studied, e.g. although sexual activity was associated with good health, we cannot say that one is causing the other.
  • This is a descriptive study of over 3,000 adults aged 57 to 85 years living in the US. Cultural differences in sexual behaviour may limit how applicable these results are to other countries.

Responsible sexual behaviour is an important thing to bear in mind regardless of age. Older people are still at risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and precautions should be taken as needed.

Sir Muir Gray (aged 63) says...

This study shows yet again that there is no threshold at which “old age” begins. There are only two phases in life; the phase of growth and development and the phase of decline. There is no stable adult phase from 20 to 50 or 60 or any other chronological age. The turning point from growth to decline varies from one dimension of life to another and is dependent on social as well as biological factors.

This is not to say that people should ignore the effects of the aging process. One effect of biological ageing is that fitness – psychological or physical – is more easily lost and less easily regained. The older one gets, the more activity should be taken, whichever function the individual wishes to retain.

NHS Attribution