Sex & Seniors

Senior citizens are still doing it



Illustration by Stephen Sauer

News flash, folks: Dr. Ruth is 84 and still doing it. More than three decades after her late-night radio show, “Sexually Speaking,” first aired, the celebrated therapist is still counseling men and women about physical pleasure. So it’s no surprise that the generation who first heard her signature voice — not to mention her straight talk — 30 years ago has also not slowed down when it comes to getting down to business in the boudoir.

More and more, senior citizens are discovering that just because they’re older doesn’t mean their sex life is over. The thinking is: “I’m not dead yet, so why should my sex life be?”

Ron Yap, director of male urologic health program at Concord Hospital Center for Urologic care, says that in his experience, the World War II generation was more accepting of getting older and becoming impotent as they aged. “They feel like, this was life, and they sucked it up,” he says. But the seniors his practice deals with most often now are the Vietnam generation, who came of age in time of free love and the Sexual Revolution. It may not be 1966 anymore, but Baby still does the Hanky Panky.

Research backs that up. A national survey of more than 3,000 seniors aged 57–85, published in 2007 in the New England Journal of Medicine, sheds some light in the bedroom behaviors of older Americans. It found that more than half to three-quarters of respondents remain sexually active. More than two-thirds of men and almost 40 percent of women between the ages of 65 and 74 reported that they had sex sometime during the previous year. (And they reported about the same frequency of sexual activity as was reported by 18- to 59-year-olds in the 1992 National Health and Social Life Survey, by the by.) If they’re lucky enough to still have partners, even octogenarians are still getting it on, with 38 percent of men in their mid-70s to mid-80s claiming to have engaged in intercourse during the previous year.

For these people, “wrinkles in the sheets” is not an ironing issue.

"Clearly, the myth that as people age they naturally lose interest in sex is being debunked."

And while once it was taboo to think about seniors schtupping, nowadays attitudes are more enlightened. A proliferation of lifestyle pharmaceutical drugs and other advances in modern medicine; online dating services geared toward older Americans; and even movies like “Hope Springs” and “Something’s Gotta Give” portraying older Americans dealing with their sexuality all attest to the growing attitude that seniors shouldn’t have to hang it up just because they are getting older.

“My job is to keep guys in the game as long as possible,” says Yap. “For some people sexual vigor means so much to them. We don’t try to qualify it.”

After all, seniors use reading glasses to help their eyesight, hip replacements when their joints wear out — why not tools to help them with their, er, tool? Sexual dysfunction is very common if you look at statistics, says Yap, and is proportional to age. At age 50, about half of men can’t have sex and that number ramps up as you get older, he adds, so someone at 75 has very high chance of being impotent.

The discovery of erectile dysfunction (ED) drugs like Viagra, Cyalis and Levitra — and the fact that pharmaceutical companies are savvy enough to market them on billboards and television commercials, at every ballgame and in every men’s magazine — also makes people much more willing to discuss them as an option with their doctors.

“Viagra was a fortuitous discovery [in the 1990s] because it was actually a side effect noted during heart medication trials. It was found serendipitously,” says Yap. And, he adds, when these drugs go off patent and become available generically in three to five years, there’s really going to be an upsurge in sales due to increased affordability. Although nothing as dramatic or easy has been found on the woman’s side of the sexual equation yet, there is a lot of interest in medical advances such as hormone replacement therapy, estrogen or progesterone creams, or testoserone replacement, for both men and women.

All this sexual activity made possible does come with a price, however. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are dramatically on the rise in the senior set, more than doubling among middle-aged adults and the elderly over the past decade. The increase in ED drugs, the fact that more seniors are staying sexually active, and the low rate of condom use among older couples, who no longer worry about pregnancy and may not think they are at risk for STDs, create a “perfect storm” for rising cases among older citizens. Not to mention that assisted living facilities and other senior housing can be hotbeds of activity that might make the younger generation blush.

“Like college or anything else, when people of the same ages and interests are together in one place, there’s a lot of sex going on,” says Yap. 

A study published in the Student British Medical Journal reports, for example, that from 2006–2010 cases of syphilis in those aged 55 and older were up 135 percent, from 255 to 600; and chlamydia was up 111 percent, from 2,120 to 4, 477. A 2010 study by Massachusetts General Hospital also found that men over the age of 50 were six times less likely to use a condom than men in their 20s. For this reason, there’s a growing push at senior facilities and at doctor’s offices such as Yap’s to have “the talk” with seniors about safe and responsible sexual habits.

Clearly, the myth that as people age they naturally lose interest in sex is being debunked. Sex is a good indicator of overall health for both men and women: it boosts immunity and reduces stress levels, among other things. Not surprisingly, however, one of the biggest detriments to sexual activity is health, especially for the older set: those who have health problems have less or none at all, those who are healthy tend to have more. Diabetes, prostate problems, menopause and side effects from medications are common issues that block blood flow to the sexual organs for both men and women, and can interfere with sexual performance or desire. And like other muscles in the body, you either use it or lose it. 

“There is burgeoning evidence that there is a correlation between erectile dysfunction and heart disease. It could be an early sign of a cardiovascular problem,” he says. “The arteries that go into the penis are the same caliber as coronary artery, and the same disruptive blood flow to the penis could be clogging the arteries to the heart.”

Some seniors might be nervous that they won’t be able to tolerate having sex due to heart or other issues, and this is another good reason why talking with a doctor is important, says Yap. However, he says that luckily very few people need to be worried that their ticker can’t take it.

FYI

Craving more information about seniors and sexuality? Check out “Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex,” a book by Joan Price, which offers straightforward, candid advice and information about the challenges, surprises and delights of senior sexuality.

Or visit safersex4seniors.org, a website that offers advice and information pertaining to seniors and STDs, as well as sexual rights in assisted living facilities. Most interesting, however, is a public service announcement with (fully clothed) seniors in various Kama Sutra positions that’s sure to get people’s attention about safe sex among seniors.

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