Adding context to studies on sex and aging adults

Photo: Patrick via Flickr

Photo: Patrick via Flickr


Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about it. There’s good news and bad news on the older adult sexual health front.

First the good news, at least if you’re an older woman. Frequent, enjoyable sex can lower risk of hypertension according to a new study by researchers at Michigan State University.

Among older men however, the risk of heart attack actually increased with more frequent sex. Older men who had sex once a week or more were much more likely to experience cardiovascular events five years later than men who were sexually inactive, the study found. This risk was not found among older women.

Of course, the media, from CNN to TIME, to The Daily Mail was all over this research. The story also went viral on Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets.


I reviewed a cross section of these media stories and all seemed satisfied with just running the MSU press release, without adding further context to the story. None of these articles questioned how this research differs or compliments the sometimes conflicting advice they reported about other studies – like this one in a recent issue of Forbes, which show cognitive benefits of sex in later life for both genders. Or this one that Time ran two years ago touting seven reasons to have more sex as we age. Then there’s this NPR story on how a good sex life can help couples cope with the stresses of aging. And a quick search would have uncovered this 2012 study that found regular sexual activity in older adults was associated with good physical and mental health.

Maybe it’s because a lot of people have trouble getting past “Ewww” when thinking about anyone who’s eligible for Medicare being intimate. This Psychology Today article explains why we’re so culturally hung up about it.

Although sex after 60 is good for women (and maybe men too, depending on the research) making it happen isn’t always so easy – especially for residents of assisted-living facilities. As UPI reported, a new study by researchers at Georgia State University found that staff and management may impede relationships between residents because of safety or risk management concerns. Prior studies also support this finding.

But perhaps the best “sex and the senior” story comes out of Acciaroli, a small town in Italy. Researchers are investigating why some 1 in 10 residents (currently 80 out of 700) live to 100 years old or more. According to a report in The Local, this is the same small town which helped confirm the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet.

So far, researchers know that residents here happen to consume a lot of rosemary, which may help with brain function, they walk, and do other exercise daily. Or maybe it’s something in their genes.

I’m rooting for the theory put forth by University of California, San Diego, researcher Alan Meisel: “Sexual activity among the elderly appears to be rampant. Maybe living long has something to do with that, it’s probably the good air and the joie de vivre.”

1 thought on “Adding context to studies on sex and aging adults

  1. Avatar photoNorman Bauman

    Nowhere in the press release or abstract could I find a warning about the difficulties of establishing causality from epidemiological studies. (Since the Journal of Health and Social Behavior is paywalled, I can’t read the full article right now.) Not reporting the difference between association and causation was the most common flaw in reporting medical stories in a sample of 319 news stories. Research Letter: Reporting of Limitations of Observational Research

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