From our changing bodies to adjusted attitudes, understanding intimacy as we age.
Anyone who has a few wrinkles or grey hairs can attest to it: body parts change as we age. All body parts. But while sexual function in your 60s may not look the same as it did in your 30s, it doesn’t mean the cobwebs are closing in. Numerous studies prove that interest in sex often continues into a ripe old age. So does activity.
An American study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a majority of seniors age 65 to 74 are sexually active. In the U.K., the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) reports that of non-single women in their 80s, 41 per cent enjoyed a roll in the hay within the past year. We don’t have similar research on Canadians at this age, but a Trojan survey of 2,400 mid-life Canadians found that the oldest group (55-59) got the same amount of pleasure from sex as the youngest (40-44). Advancing age is not holding anyone back.
But the older body is different. And in order to stay sexually active later in life, adaptations might need to be made or treatments sought – or minds opened.
“Making love is expressing your feelings for your partner in a physical way. It could include intercourse but it could include other activities,” says Dr. E. Sandra Byers, professor and chair of the department of psychology at the University of New Brunswick, who has researched sexuality and aging. “You just need to find ways to pleasure each other and feel good about it.”
Desire can also go down if the relationship is strained—something that’s often missed, says Byers. “I see people who are looking for some kind of medical explanation for a sexual problem, but they’re fighting all the time. Who’s going to feel desire for someone you’re not getting along with?”
The Hormone Equation
His Symptoms The ability to concentrate and plan is altered by dropping testosterone levels, says Dr. Jack Barkin, a Toronto urologist, and visual stimuli may be less effective: “Looking at a sexy picture may not stimulate a sex response anymore.” Sexual function is also more strongly affected now by psychological stress. And because after age 50 testosterone levels decline by one per cent a year, this also causes decreased desire, a reduction in muscle mass and an increase in body fat. Erections take longer and are less rigid. (Ejaculation may take longer, too, which can be fun.) Erections may come and go several times during sexual activity.
The Solution Play along. “Penis-in-vagina intercourse doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all,” Paulsen says. “Sex can mean whatever the couple wants it to mean, as long as they’re both comfortable and willing.” For men who are having trouble getting erections, possible therapies include PDE5 inhibitors (Viagra and friends), injections or vacuum devices. Try talking to your family doctor or urologist. “Men still don’t want to talk about their problems, even though we [doctors] can help them and they want help,” says Barkin. “We can’t reverse the aging process but we can definitely provide options, whether they be medical, physical or emotional, to help them have a satisfying sexual activity.”
Her Symptoms Estrogen production drops off at menopause. Vaginal tissues become thinner and more easily irritated and produce less lubrication. The vagina becomes less expandable. Although sexual desire is influenced by multiple factors, there’s also a natural decline from aging and menopause, says Dr. Wendy Wolfman, director of the Menopause Clinic at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. (Drugs to address this are currently in trials.)
Fix the Plumbing
His Symptoms The prostate enlarges with age, obstructing urine flow in 65 per cent of men over 50. Symptoms like frequency, urgency, incontinence and infections can interfere with sex and self-confidence. Prostate enlargement and erectile dysfunction also appear to be interlinked, so if ED becomes an issue have it checked ASAP.
The Solution Treat the prostate symptoms. “Often, if we can improve the voiding function with medication, we can also improve the erections.” says Barkin.
Diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease all become more common in older men and women. And all can impede blood flow, affecting your sexual response. “Diabetes has two dramatic impacts with sexual activity because it affects both the nerves and the blood vessels,” says Barkin. If you’re obese, “Physically, the act of sex can be more difficult because you just can’t get close enough to your partner.”
Naturally, we’ re going to suggest weight loss, better diet and exercise. “More aerobic activity will increase blood flow and oxygenation,” says Barkin. Cut back on alcohol, which makes you less alert and slows your response time. Paulsen suggests: “Get a physical. See if there are things that you can be doing to feel healthier.”