Grandma's Still Got It: Sex Persists Into the 80s

Kay Mautz, a 69-year-old divorcee from LeGrange Park, Ill., says that she can't remember the last time she had sex.

"If I knew it was going to be the last time for a while, I wish I would have enjoyed it more," she said.

Mautz recalls having sex about once a week in her younger years. Now no longer sexually active, she attributes the decline to the fact that she no longer has a trustful relationship -- plus, she thinks men her age are "not particularly attractive."

But while many seniors like Mautz report a decline in sex as they get older, a new study shows that a significant number of older Americans are still having it -- in many cases, well into their 80s.

Yet doctors don't appear to be talking to their older patients about sex -- a trend that may have to change as more treatments for age-related sexual dysfunction become available.

"Sex among older adults is the last taboo in the United States," said Dr. Virginia Sadock, professor of psychiatry and director of the Program of Human Sexuality at New York University.

The study, released Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, surveyed 3,005 men and women in the United States over the age of 57. Researchers hoped to better understand the decline in sexual activity as one ages, as well as the differences between the sex lives of older men and older women.

What they found was that among adults 57 to 64 years of age, 73 percent reported recent sexual activity.

That number declined to 53 percent among those aged 65 to 74 and to 26 percent among those who were 75 to 85 years old.

But although the percentage of individuals who are sexually active decreases with age, the study highlights the fact that a "substantial number of men and women continue to engage in sexual activity."

Lead study author Dr. Stacey Lindau, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the University of Chicago, said a general lack of basic information on sexuality and the elderly prompted her to look for more information in this area.

"When I asked questions in my practice [about sexuality], I found that people had a lot to say," she said. "They also said, 'No one ever asked me that before.'"

Dr. Robert Butler, professor of geriatrics and director of the International Longevity Center in New York, thinks this study presents an important message.

"Clinicians need to realize that older individuals are still sexually active," said Butler, who was not affiliated with the study.

A New Look at Old Sex

Butler also thinks the age range of the patients in the study is important because it includes individuals older than 59.

"That is the maximum age that prior research had looked at" regarding sexuality and adults, he said.

But as aging baby boomers progress into their 60s and 70s, Lindau said, such research is becoming more relevant to the population as a whole.

"There is an aging population in the United States, and we need to know about their sexuality and health," she said.

Moreover, it seems that seniors who keep things spicy between the sheets may also be in a better state of health in general -- making a healthy sex life a good indicator of overall health.

"The capacity of sex is very much related to the condition of health," said Sadock, who is also unaffiliated with the study.

"There are essentially two groups of aging people, the elderly and the 'wellderly,'" she said. "And the 'wellderly' are much more likely to have sex."

Why Grandpa Gets It More than Grandma

Among those surveyed for the study, 78 percent of men aged 75 to 85 reported having a spousal or other intimate relationship, while only 40 percent of women reported the same.

While there exists a tendency for the mind to run wild with possible explanations for this discrepancy, the real reason may be much simpler.

Men generally tend to marry younger women, remarry earlier after divorce or death of a spouse, and eventually die younger than their female counterparts.

Also, just as with younger generations, older men and older women may have different reasons for engaging in sexual activity.

In an editorial that accompanies the study, Dr. John Bancroft of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction in Bloomington, Ind., cites relationship and intimacy as one of the major motivations for sex in women.

Sadock agrees. "Being in a caring and intimate relationship is of extreme importance, especially for women," she said.

Women also appear more likely to rate sex as an unimportant part of life, and they were more likely to report that they no longer get pleasure from sex.

Such a situation is a familiar one for 71-year-old divorcee Lynn Kaleen of Spring, Texas.

"My sex drive has diminished over the years, especially after I turned 50," she said. "My libido basically died out. It surprised me."

Physicians also cite physiological reasons for these differences. Menopause plays a role in women's hormonal profile, as well as their own feelings of sexuality. For men, there are changes in certain blood vessels which can cause erectile dysfunction as well as changes in testosterone levels that can affect their sex drives.

Never Too Old for the Sex Talk

Mautz said that when her doctor asked her whether she was seeing anyone, she started to rattle off a list of other physicians with whom she had had recent appointments -- until she realized that her doctor was inquiring about her intimate relationships.

"I am rarely asked about this by other doctors," she said. "It took me by surprise."

She may not be alone. According to the new study, only 38 percent of women and 22 percent of men had discussed sex with their physicians since turning 50.

Butler said he feels the underlying problem is twofold.

"Doctors in general have hardly any time to talk to patients," he said. "They are also not educated about sexuality -- especially old age sexuality."

Lindau adds that there are other issues as well. For example, she said, older women may feel too embarrassed or intimidated to ask a young male doctor about sex.

But as new information about sex in seniors continues to unfold, doctors say that conversations about sex must become more of a fixture in older Americans' doctor visits.

"It should be a routine part of any general clinical appraisal to check whether there are any sexual concerns," Bancroft said. "It is then up to the patient whether he or she responds."

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