Sex and sexuality communicate a great deal: affection, love, esteem, warmth, sharing, and bonding. These gifts are as much the right of older adults as they are of those who are much younger.
Three aspects of sexuality are covered in this topic: the changes that come with aging, suggestions on how to adjust to these changes, and information about sexually transmitted diseases.
In most healthy adults, pleasure and interest in sex do not diminish with age. Age alone is no reason to change the sexual practices that you have enjoyed throughout your life. However, you may have to make a few minor adjustments to accommodate any physical limitations you may have or the effects of certain illnesses or medications.
Most physical changes are the result of gradually decreasing testosterone levels. These changes affect energy, strength, muscle and fat mass, bone density, and sexual function.
Not all women experience these problems. Those who do can experiment to find ways to enjoy sex despite these physical changes.
In addition to physical changes, there are cultural and psychological factors that affect sexuality in later years. For example, in our culture, sexuality is equated with youthful looks and youthful vigor. Too many people seem to think that as a person ages, he or she becomes less desirable and less of a sexual being. Older adults may accept this stereotype and buy into the notion that they are not permitted or expected to be sexual.
Joy in sex and loving knows no age barriers. Almost everyone has the capacity to find lifelong pleasure in sex. To believe in the myth that older people have no interest in sex is to miss out on wonderful possibilities.
Being single through choice, divorce, or widowhood can present a problem as well. As you get older, you may not have as many people in your age group to choose from for partners. Women and men who are single may not know how to deal with their sexual feelings. Generally speaking, it is better to express your desires than to suppress them until you are no longer aware that they exist.
Physical and emotional needs change with time and circumstance. Intimacy and sexuality may or may not be important to you. The issue here is one of choice. If you freely decide that sex is no longer right for you, then that is the correct decision. It is possible to live a fulfilling life without sex. However, if you choose to continue enjoying your sexuality, you deserve support and encouragement. You may still find uncharted sensual territories to explore.
Just as exercise is the key to maintaining fitness and health, having sex on a regular basis is the best way to maintain sexual capacity.
And just as it's never too late to start an exercise program, it's never too late to start having sex. Many older people who have been celibate for years develop satisfying sexual practices within new loving relationships. For others, self-stimulation (masturbation) is common and poses no health risks or side effects.
You may have sexual changes as you get older. But some changes may be the first sign of a medical problem. So talk with your doctor about any changes that concern you. He or she may be able to recommend treatments that will help you.
Here are some additional considerations:
Sexuality goes far beyond the physical act itself. It is part of who we are. It involves our needs for touch, affection, and intimacy.
Touch is a wonderful and needed sensation. Babies who are not touched do not thrive. Children who are not touched develop emotional problems. Touch is important to older adults as well. Touch helps us feel connected with others and enhances our sexuality.
To give and receive affection is a wonderful feeling. If you like someone, be sure to let them know. If someone seems to like you, appreciate it. It is never too late to make new friends and strengthen bonds with longtime companions.
Intimacy is the capacity for a close physical or emotional connection with another person. Intimacy is a great protector against depression.
Talking with a confidant can help ease life's problems. When you lose a loved one, intimacy may be what you miss most. You may not find someone to fully replace a loved one who died, but you can begin to rebuild intimacy in your life in the following ways:
Sexually transmitted diseases—also known as STDs or venereal diseases—are infections passed from person to person through sexual intercourse, genital contact, or contact with semen, vaginal fluids, or blood.
Older people may think of STDs as a problem that affects only young people. But because of physical changes related to age, older adults who are exposed to STDs may be more likely than young people to get STDs.
As you age, your immune system is not as strong, so it’s harder to fight off disease. And women who are past menopause have thinner vaginal walls and less vaginal moisture than they did before menopause. Using a lubricant, such as KY Jelly, may keep you from getting a sore or a tiny cut on your penis or inside your vagina. This can reduce your risk of getting STDs or HIV.
Practice safe sex. For older adults, this means always using condoms and lubricants until you are in a monogamous relationship and know your partner’s sexual history and HIV status.
STDs can affect anyone, no matter what his or her age. Talk openly with your partner about STDs and take whatever precautions are necessary to protect yourself before you engage in any form of sexual contact. If you think you may have an STD, see your health professional.
|Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention|
|1600 Clifton Road|
|Atlanta, GA 30333|
The National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention is a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Their Web site provides information and updates on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and tuberculosis (TB). You can also find fact sheets on these health topics.
|National Institute on Aging|
|Building 31, Room 5C27|
|31 Center Drive, MSC 2292|
|Bethesda, MD 20892|
The National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of the centers of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, leads a broad scientific effort to understand the nature of aging and to extend the healthy, active years of life. The NIA funds research and provides information about health and research advances to the public and interested groups.
|National Institutes of Health Senior Health|
|9000 Rockville Pike|
|Bethesda, MD 20892|
|Phone:||1-800-222-2225 Aging Information Center|
This website for older adults offers aging-related health information. The website's senior-friendly features include large print, simple navigation, and short, easy-to-read segments of information. A visitor to this website can click special buttons to hear the text aloud, make the text larger, or turn on higher contrast for easier viewing.
The site was developed by the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine, both part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIHSeniorHealth features up-to-date health information from NIH. Also, the American Geriatrics Society provides independent review of some of the material found on this website.
Other Works Consulted
- Johnson LE, Alline KM (2007). Sexual health. In RJ Ham et al., eds., Primary Care Geriatrics, 5th ed., pp. 401–407. Philadelphia: Mosby Elsevier.
- Potter J (2009). Female sexuality: Assessing satisfaction and addressing problems. In EG Nabel, ed., ACP Medicine, section 16, chap. 22. Hamilton, ON: BC Decker.
- Agronin ME (2009). Sexual disorders. In DG Blazer et al., eds., American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Geriatric Psychiatry, 4th ed., pp. 357–373. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- American Geriatrics Society (2008). Safe (and Enjoyable!) Sex for Seniors. Available online: http://www.healthinaging.org/public_education/safe_sex_tips.pdf.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2008). What Persons Aged 50 and Older Can Do. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/topics/over50/protection.htm.
- Kaiser FE (2003). Sexual function and the older woman. In CK Cassel et al., eds., Geriatric Medicine: An Evidence-Based Approach, 4th ed., chap. 49, pp. 727–735. New York: Springer-Verlag.
- Mulligan T, Siddiqi W (2003). Changes in male sexuality. In CK Cassel et al., eds., Geriatric Medicine: An Evidence-Based Approach, 4th ed., ch. 48, pp. 719–726. New York: Springer-Verlag.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Shelly R. Garone, MD, FACP - Palliative Medicine|
|Last Revised||December 9, 2010|
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