Elders' Sex Problems: Not Just Aging

Sexual problems as we get older may not be a part of the natural aging process but instead may be related to stressors like our emotional and physical health, a new study shows.

Researchers looked at original interviews with 1,550 women and 1,455 men aged 57 to 85 as part of the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project (NSHAP).

The interviews were done face-to-face in the elders' homes between July 2005 and March 2006. Participants were asked about their sexual activity in the previous year.

Among those seniors who said they had been sexually active in the past year, about half of them also reported at least one "bothersome" sexual problem.

Study authors, led by Edward Laumann, PhD, write that there is little known about the problems plaguing elders having sex.

In defining sexual problems, the researchers included these issues:

  • No interest or a diminished interest in having sex

  • Trouble getting and keeping an erection

  • Vaginal dryness or a lack of lubrication

  • Not being able to orgasm or reaching climax too early

  • Having pain during sex

  • Feeling no pleasure during sex

  • Being anxious about sexual performance

Respondents were asked how much the problems bothered them.

Researchers also looked at age, ethnicity, whether the person was married, divorced, widowed, or never married, and how much education they had.

Three sets of risk factors for sex problems were looked at:

  • Physical health

  • Mental health (like depression , anxiety , or stress )

  • Relationship experiences (for example, how happy people were in their relationship)

Sexual Problems for Men and Women

The research suggests that women may be more likely than men to have problems with sex because of a health issue such as urinary tract problems or history of sexually transmitted disease (STD ).

Researchers found that one of the biggest mental health issues for both women and men was anxiety.

Men reported their biggest sexual problem was not being able to keep and maintain an erection -- something that was also related to urinary tract syndrome.

Men who were widowed or never married said they experienced a much lower lack of pleasure during sex than married men.

Men who were divorced or separated were twice as likely as married men to say they suffered from performance anxiety.

Laumann says in a news release that "having had an STD roughly quadruples a woman's odds of reporting sexual pain and triples her lubrication problems."

When it comes to men and sexually transmitted diseases, the reviewers found them more than five times as likely to report not finding pleasure in sex if they had ever been diagnosed with an STD.

"The results point to a need for physicians who are treating older adults experiencing sexual problems to take into account their physical health and also consider their mental health and their satisfaction with their intimate relationship in making any assessment," Laumann says.

The research is published in the Journal of Sex Medicine.

By Kelley Colihan
Reviewed by Louise Chang
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