July 10, 2008 -- As media attention focuses on issues like teenage pregnancy and rates of sexual activity among the young, a new Swedish study reinforces what many professionals in the area have long suspected -- sexual activity and satisfaction are on the rise among the elderly.
The study, from Gothenburg University in Sweden, showed that self-reported levels of sexual satisfaction among 70-year-olds in Gothenburg has been on the rise, from 58 percent of 70-year-old men reporting satisfaction in 1976-77 to 71 percent reporting sexual satisfaction in 2000-01. Among women, the increase was from 41 percent to 62 percent during the same period.
"I think it's very important for older people to know that it's quite normal to have sexual feelings, and it's important for health professionals to know that they are sexually active or would like to be, and they should take that into consideration," said Nils Beckman, a doctoral student at Gothenburg and the lead author of the study.
The findings are published in the most recent issue of the British Medical Journal.
Although the study was done exclusively in Sweden, researchers here seem to believe the findings are applicable to the United States as well, even if the rate is not quite as high.
"There is no question that people in their 70s today are like people in their 60s from the last decade," said Judith Kuriansky, a clinical psychologist, sex therapist and faculty member at Columbia University Teachers College.
"People are staying younger older, as they work out, look better, feel better and therefore are physically as well as psychologically more interested -- as well as more capable -- of being sexual."
The findings may support a trend; a study published last August in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that 53 percent of people between the ages of 65 and 74 had recently engaged in sexual activity.
Researchers have proposed a number of reasons for the rise.
"One reason might be that today 70-year-olds are healthier than they were 30 years ago, but other studies have shown that people who have a good sex life in earlier years usually have a good sex life in old age," said Beckman.
He also points to the change in norms for the different classes of 70-year-olds interviewed.
Speaking of the most recent interviewees, Beckman said, "They were still young in the '60s, when they introduced uterine pills, contraceptive devices, and they were young when the Second World War ended.
"Since the '60s, the attitudes toward sexuality in society have changed a lot, affecting even those born in the '30s."
He noted that the first group of 70-year-olds interviewed were teenagers during World War I.
And a number of other changes took place between the groups. Notably, while the rate of erectile dysfunction decreased from 18 percent to 8 percent, the rate of ejaculation dysfunction increased from 5 percent to 12 percent. Beckman and a number of outside researchers attribute that to the rise in erectile drugs like Viagra and Cialis.
Because the study was based on interviews, it is subject to the honesty of the septuagenarians who were interviewed, but even if this is merely a rise in talking about sex rather than actual sex that is on the rise, Kuriansky sees that alone as a positive.
"If they're more comfortable talking about it, they're more comfortable doing it," she said.
Men Having More Sex
But while both sexes seem to be enjoying sex more in their later years, men seem to be even more satisfied than women.
"Men are usually more sexually active than women," noted Beckman.
He said he expects that gap in sexual satisfaction to continue shrinking.
The longer life spans of women can prevent many from having partners late in life, but Kuriansky said she has a suggestion for women facing that problem.
"Sex therapists like myself encourage people to be self-pleasuring," she said. "If you have no partner, you can continue to be pleasured by yourself."
Kuriansky said that the sexual climaxes have the added benefit of easing the pains associated with arthritis.
Rockin' to the Oldies
While the trend seems to be toward more sexually active golden age, Gina Ogden, a sexuality therapist and author of the upcoming book "The Return of Desire," said that the numbers don't necessarily confirm that elderly Americans haven't had satisfactory sex lives all along.
"The trend in the U.S., because boomers are now hitting their 60s, the supposed trend is that older Americans are becoming more sexually hip, sexually active," she said. "So I would like to think that this is a trend, but it's hard for me to know whether this is.
"If you go to the Midwest and you ask a bunch of evangelicals, they will tell you that they've always been sexual, and they'll use sexual language. But it's in the context of long-term marriage. It will be different depending on who you ask."
And while some see a perceived rise in sexual activity among the elderly as a sign that societal norms are changing, other professionals believe that it remains a topic many would prefer to avoid.
"Before we celebrate, let me assure you that young people, while celebrating the occasional 'cougar,' still can't bear to think of their parents as being sexual. Still, their parents do not want to be consigned to the 'dust bin of sexuality,'" said Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington.
But Kuriansky believes, regardless of society's acceptance, that studies like this one have value because they show older people that they can maintain a healthy sex life
"If there's not studies about it, people don't really believe it as much, so these studies are really crucial," she said. "You do have to make adjustments to your sex life, but you don't have to stop it."
Beckman agrees with that sentiment.
"I want them to know that most elderly have the opinion that it's natural with sexual dealings even at old age," he said. "It's a natural part of late life."